Residential Parking Downtown: A Lot to Lose

100 Block residents face a parking quandary

One of the major complaints I used to hear about downtown was that there was no place to park. There was. But that was the perception, anyway. The city's move to offer free parking on evenings and weekends at garages has largely alleviated that concern for visitors. But for downtown's growing residential population, the options are limited.

In 2005, a survey went out from the Central Business Improvement District to businesses and residents along the 100 Block of Gay Street. With the looming closure of the Gay Street Viaduct, residents would be facing the temporary loss of several parking spaces in an area where an influx of residents and new businesses was already creating a shortage. The question at hand was whether inhabitants of the block would pay to use a proposed parking lot at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Gay.

The city had its eye on a 2-acre tract in the shadow of the viaduct, adjacent to the McClung warehouses owned by developer Rio Valeriano, who had announced plans to build a $22 million, 109-unit condo project from the ground up to be called Jackson Flats. But with the viaduct construction, the project was delayed. In an effort to keep the development alive, a deal was struck whereby the city would lease the space as a parking lot from the developer for $11,000 a month for 10 years.

In September of 2005, one month before the viaduct was closed, the city began accepting applications for the parking spaces. And in June of the 2006, the viaduct was reopened to traffic—five months ahead of schedule—though work continued on the project until April of 2008. Meanwhile, the McClung warehouses went up in flames, and a portion of the parking lot played host to the pile of rubble left in its wake.

With the completion of the viaduct, the area reclaimed about 50 on-street parking spaces. But that was short lived. Construction began on the 100 Block streetscaping project this past spring, and again dozens of on-street spaces disappeared as crews tore up the pavement. The city, which had been offering paid monthly parking in the lot, dropped its charges and opened the lot to free parking following the McClung blaze. It also began serving as a staging area for the 100 Block project.

Last week, a blog maintained by the city chronicling the project posted the following:

"The City of Knoxville has begun notifying those parking in the parking lot at the corner of Gay and Jackson that its lease on the lot expires at the end of the month. Beginning, Tuesday, September 1, the city will be unable to assure that parking is available at that location."

According to Bill Lyons, the city's director of policy and communication, "The lease was for 10 years, however, it had a contingency that construction would begin on a condominium project there." Jackson Flats never broke ground, and with the changes in the housing market since it was announced, it seems likely it never will.

With pressure mounting from City Council, the administration is currently involved in negotiations to purchase the lot outright. An appraisal from Knoxville's Community Development Corporation places its value at $1.3 million. Valeriano's own appraisal values it at $1.6 million. Until a deal can be struck, parking at the location will be in question.

In the meantime, the city's suggested contingency for residential parking is either along Depot Street, at the recently opened lots under I-40 near Magnolia, or beneath the James White Parkway in the Old City. Both of the lots are some distance from 100 Block residences.

Frankly, the Jackson lot never was very successful. Despite city assurances that the lot would be secure, the drop-down gate (which had problems of its own) prevented only auto traffic from getting in. It was easily accessible on foot. And prior to the Volunteer Ministry Center's move to Broadway, the sidewalk leading up to Gay was often a hangout for homeless and other street people, raising safety concerns for many residents.

That may be one of the reasons that, as a pay lot, its collections averaged only $1,700 a month, far short of the city's $11,000 lease payment. And without the proper investment to provide adequate security, the facility is unlikely to ever appeal to residents.

In March of this year, Lyons was quoted in the News-Sentinel as saying, "Parking for both the 100 block, the (city-subsidized) Emporium Building specifically, and a developing Jackson, is critical to the eventual success of this area."

With the future of the lot in question, and few alternatives available in the immediate vicinity, the question now is: where?