Signs of Change: Will the City Finally Shake Up Gay Street's All-Day Parking?

A few months back, I lamented that Gay Street, despite having just won accolades as one of the best streets in America, still needed a significant amount of improvement to function well as an urban thoroughfare. But in recent weeks, the city has implemented incremental changes to some blocks, such as reconfiguring parking designations and even laying down fresh paint on some curbs, to better mark areas that are off limits.

Most of the modifications have been subtle. But two weeks ago, the first major change in recent memory came in the form of a significant overhaul of the city's policy toward on-street parking on Gay Street. Previously, the street was a mishmash of differing zones ranging from 10 minutes to an hour. Now, new signs set free street parking from Summit Hill Avenue to the river as limited to two hours from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

It's likely that, for the majority of visitors to downtown, this will be seen as an expansion of the free one-hour maximum limit that was previously available. But for a significant number of those who spend more time here—particularly residents—it marks a major change to the parking landscape downtown.

Whereas the previous restrictions were ostensibly enforced only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, the new regulations expand both hours and days. Likewise, concert-goers, theater patrons, and others who require more than two hours may find the municipal parking garages—still free evenings and weekends—to be more suitable. On the other hand, even with the new regulations, you can still park at 10 p.m. and be safe until 8 a.m. the next day. There won't be any rollover enforcement from the previous evening to the following morning. So you could get two hours before midnight, and two the next morning.

The move is seen as draconian by some. But according to Jesse Fox Mayshark, communications manager for the city (and former Metro Pulse editor), "The decisions were made by city staff from a number of departments after consultation with downtown stakeholders including CBID, businesses, and residents." And there's some indication that this won't be the last reconfiguration. "Downtown is continuing to change, with new residential units and retail on schedule to open. As we continue to address the needs of visitors, residents, and business owners, a range of options will be explored, based on best practices and the experiences of other municipalities."

As with so many things, the laws and policy aren't necessarily linked. Parking enforcement in downtown has been lax for well over a decade, particularly in spaces that aren't metered, such as the ones in question. It remains to be seen whether the new signs represent a real shift in the city's parking culture or not. After all, threats were issued more than a year ago through a Knoxville News Sentinel headline proclaiming, "Expect more enforcement of downtown parking rules." In the story, Rick Emmett, downtown coordinator for the city, was quoted as saying, "People can't pull up and park for three days." The result was a short uptick in citations before things settled back to the status quo. Following the ice storm just a few weeks ago, with the roads cleared, you could still find cars on Gay Street days later, windshields still coated in telltale ice, unticketed.

The bottom line is that unless the Knoxville Police Department steps up to the plate and starts throwing down fines and towing, it's nothing more than some new signs with some new words. The former "Tow Away Zone" has been replaced with "Towing Enforced." But I guess we'll see. As Mayshark told Metro Pulse reporter Cari Wade Gervin, there will be no additional staff cost for enforcement.

Based on that, I don't expect much to change. It's rare to see a KPD officer chalking tires—presumably the only way to catch offenders absent parking meters—let alone any foot or bike patrol at all on most evenings or weekends. Best to be aware that, according to the press release, "Warnings will be issued for the first two weeks after Feb. 25. Full enforcement will begin March 11, with citations and towing." Time will tell.

It may come as a surprise that long-term parking is technically illegal everywhere on the city's streets. (Remember that laws vs. policy thing?) But Knoxville's code of ordinances states, "No person shall park a vehicle upon any roadway for the principal purpose of ... (s)toring such vehicle for a continuous period of time longer than twenty-four (24) hours." That's supposed to apply citywide, not just to downtown streets. But I doubt anyone elsewhere in Knoxville needs to worry about that. You didn't get new signs.