Long-Term Parking

When does "interim use" become permanent use?

Earlier this summer, a twin-front building on the 800 block of Market Street was demolished, without publicity, as demolishers prefer it. I didn't know about it until I saw the backhoes biting into it one weekend. It was the first demolition on Market Street in 30 years, but no one raised a stir. Few cared much about the building, a drab little former law office, a one-story victim of the over-stuccoed '70s, ineligible for National Register status. I saw it in mid-demolition, when the stucco had fallen off, but the front walls were still standing, and was surprised to see, for the first time in my life, its dignified circa-1920 facade.

Still, what bothered me is not that it was demolished, but what it was replaced with. It's been paved over and marked off, with maybe a dozen parking spaces. The demolition adds to the largest surface parking lot in the neighborhood.

It's a particularly famous parking lot, I've found. When I give talks to groups in the suburbs, there's always one person who comes up to me afterward and says, "I'd like to come downtown, but I can't pay $8 for parking!" That manifesto, which I've heard from any number of sweet old West Knoxville ladies, once puzzled me. In almost 30 years of working downtown, I've never paid more than $2 a day for parking. I'm not sure why anybody chooses to.

It finally dawned on me that what folks are talking about is this particular lot, now bigger, but no cheaper. Suburbanites who may have forgotten how to parallel park and know parking garages mainly from scary spy movies look for the suburban-style surface lots. And they see mainly this conspicuously big lot on Gay Street. Some have a look at it and refuse to park there; they drive back home and rag to their neighbors about their awful day downtown, and how you have to pay $8 to park. Others bite the bullet and pay. They may be worse for downtown than the people who refuse. They're subsidizing almost two acres of blight, and the biggest gap in Gay Street.

A surface parking lot contributes to a city on a level somewhere between a crack house and a Hooter's. Studies have shown that, given a choice, pedestrians don't even like to walk by them. Downtown's impressive array of surface parking has given more than one first-time visitor the impression that Knoxville's a cheap town. Surface lots should be rare in any downtown, and reserved for the elderly or disabled.

We can be cheered, though, by the fact that documents on file at the Metropolitan Planning Commission assure us that the whole parking lot is strictly temporary. That was the pledge of its developers when they got a variance after the MPC rejected the project 12 years ago.

Central Parking System, working with Cardinal Development, wanted to use the space to greatly expand a parking lot. Knoxville had already implemented a "Streetscape Plan," which called for all surface lots to be surrounded by wrought-iron ornamental fencing, plus a knee-high brick wall on any Gay Street side, and plantings of trees, preferably red maples, at 20- to 30-foot intervals around the perimeter. In a city that's not prone to ban surface parking altogether, as some cities do, it's a reasonable mitigation.

What the developers proposed wasn't horrible, maybe. There are uglier parking lots on Clinton Highway. It has a little landscaping, and a few trees here and there—just not nearly as many as MPC required. The proposal fell far short of the city's Streetscape guidelines; MPC, when its most prominent member was the late Jack Reese, unanimously rejected it. A parking official protested that the parking lot was "primarily to serve an interim use. We do not feel that a parking facility will be the permanent use of this property." They deserved, he thought, an exemption.

City Council was apparently persuaded to offer downtown's most conspicuous surface parking lot an exemption from its own rules, to ensure that the developer didn't have to build anything as expensive as a brick wall or four-sided fence for such a temporary thing.

And to be fair, over the next few years, several major projects were discussed for this space, including the rambling transit center, the abortive main library, and a rumored office tower. One story I heard back in the '90s was that the owner was so impressed by the fact that motorists were willing to pay him a thousand a day to leave it flat, that he left it flat.

But in 1996, when we were all younger and George W. Bush was the new governor of Texas, this insufficiently beautified parking lot was promised to be strictly temporary. It's still temporary, maybe, as are we all. But now it's a little larger.

Back in 1996, a parking-lot developer told the MPC, "This property would cost an astronomical amount to develop according to the Streetscape Plan. As an interim use, we will not be able to afford to make this into a parking lot if we are required to put in a wall."

Maybe they can afford it now. Math suggests that this parking lot, sub-par by the city's Streetscape standards but still one of the most expensive lots downtown, has grossed several million dollars in the last 12 years.

I'm bringing this all up not just as another example of Knoxville's habitual complacency about settling for second or third best; this particular block is one to take care of, and maybe boast about. It is, among many other things, the Birthplace of Tennessee. The hall where the constitutional convention met in 1796 was right on this spot, near the parking lot's northeastern corner. On one of the buildings torn down for parking, there used to be an old brass plaque to that effect.

The parking lot is Tennessee's equivalent of Independence Hall. That is, if Independence Hall had been torn down and turned into a parking lot.