Does Downtown Knoxville Really Have a Parking Problem?

Trying to find a parking spot downtown is the worst, right? Or maybe the problem is more perception than reality.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people will complain about the state of parking in the city in which they reside, whatever that state may actually be.

In a larger city, the complaints may be about the towing and impoundment fees. In a smaller city, the complaints may be that anyone is daring to charge for parking at all. But whether tickets for expired meters are $5 or $50, handed out begrudgingly or with malice, the kvetching will come.

So it is with Knoxville. Depending on to whom you talk, downtown either has a lack of parking or a surfeit. The enforcement is either so overeager that it’s driving people away or so lax that businesses are suffering. The problems can either be solved by building more parking decks or building over the surface parking lots that already exist. Neither side thinks much of the arguments of the other.

Yet even someone like me, who parks downtown almost every day of the year, generally with little problem and little cost, can see that downtown parking has some issues. Take Gay Street. On the viaduct, it costs 25 cents to park in a metered spot for about two hours. On the next block up, the 100 Block, it costs $1 for one hour. On nights and weekends, it’s free to park at all meters.

Further south on Gay, there aren’t any meters, and you can park for two hours for free between the hours of 6 a.m. and midnight. Stay longer than two hours, and you risk getting a ticket, even on the weekend. But if it’s after 6 p.m. or the weekend, you can park in the restricted 30-minute loading zones as long as you want.

And that’s just one street.

If you step back from your regular parking habits and think about it objectively—that there are this many different parking situations over the course of eight blocks (and I didn’t even mention the handicapped spots, which, more often than not, are illegally occupied)—it really is pretty convoluted.

I spent years in the Northeast and in Atlanta, so crazy urban parking requirements are almost like second nature to me, but I realize that in Knoxville I’m in a significant minority. If you don’t drive downtown every day, and you rarely drive in any urban environments, how would you know that it’s cheaper to park on the viaduct than the 100 Block, or that it’s free further up the street?

You might know that parking is free at nights at the State Street or Market Square garages, but would you know that you can park there all day for free if you wait to leave until after 7 p.m., when the attendants leave? If you’re never downtown, why would you know that some meters are 15 minutes and some are 10 hours, or that loading zones are fair game for weekend parking?

The thing is, as easy as it is to park downtown—most cities of this size simply do not offer any free parking at any time in their municipal garages, much less on their main thoroughfares—all the Byzantine rules and regulations take their toll. Throw in the private parking lots advertising “PUBLIC PARKING” that will boot you if you don’t pay, the rapidity at which the Market Square Garage fills on weekends, and the seeming inability of some people to properly parallel park, and you can almost understand, for once, the vitriol of knoxnews.com commenters on a recent News Sentinel article about parking:

“I have the best solution. I just don’t go where I have to pay for parking. There are plenty of options and they aren’t downtown,” says one commenter.

“I go downtown, only out of necessity; a primary reason being the parking birds of prey. When you go downtown you feel like a bunny rabbit in the middle of a grassy field under a sky full of red-tailed hawks...hungary [sic] red-tailed hawks. The slightest misstep and they GOT YA. I have no interest in learning all the intracies [sic] of who’s bad and who’s worse in the parking wars downtown so I do the sane thing—and just avoid it,” writes another.

Of course not everyone will ever enjoy coming downtown—just as many of us who live in or near downtown are loathe to go to Turkey Creek. But are there things the city could do to make parking more pleasing? Or is the best answer to simply build more parking?

***

NOT ENOUGH PARKING FOR YOU? Here’s all the parking downtown has to offer. The University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design holds classes in its studio in the Fidelity Building on Gay Street. The college’s Knoxville Downtown Initiative produced this map of downtown parking as it exists today.

NOT ENOUGH PARKING FOR YOU? Here’s all the parking downtown has to offer. The University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design holds classes in its studio in the Fidelity Building on Gay Street. The college’s Knoxville Downtown Initiative produced this map of downtown parking as it exists today.

If you look at a map of all the parking downtown, covering the land south of Interstate 40 and east of Fort Sanders, down to the river and over to Hall of Fame Drive, it’s almost unfathomable how many spaces there are. There is more parking downtown than there are buildings. According to the Central Business Improvement District, there are a total of 18,241 spaces available in downtown’s on-street, surface, and garage parking areas.

Sure, some of these spaces are assigned to housing, to offices, to hotels, but there actually is more parking in downtown Knoxville than its residents and workers need—it just might not be right next to where you want to go.

“The problem is not the amount of parking. You can go into almost any lot, and they’re never full. Nine out of 10 times I can find a parking spot right on Gay Street,” says Mark Schimmenti, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Tennessee. “It’s a perception problem—the one-way streets, confusing signage, people who haven’t done their homework and don’t understand that the garages are free. … We do not have a parking problem downtown. We do not.”

The perception problem Schimmenti’s talking about isn’t confined to Knoxville alone. It’s a product of our suburban automobile lifestyle—people get used to parking directly in front of the shop or restaurant to which they’re going and then getting in the car and driving to the next place, even if it’s a store at the other end of the same strip mall.

Turkey Creek is in many ways the apotheosis of this—a giant shopping and dining destination made up of dozens of strip malls, none of which interconnect to each other, all of them with free and abundant parking. Poor urban planning aside, it’s an understandable design: It’s easier to park right next to where you’re going. It’s easier to carry your bags to your car, and it’s easier to dash inside in the rain. It’s why most of us have driveways, after all.

The problems come when habitués of strip malls come downtown and get irritated when there’s no parking—or, at least, no free parking—on the same block as their destination.

“If they come downtown and they park far away and then they get a ticket, you’ve lost a customer forever,” says Brett Wood, a parking and transportation planner with Kimley-Horn and Associates and a blogger for the International Parking Institute. “It’s like having a bad dining experience in a restaurant—you won’t go back.”

Shanna Edkin lives in Rocky Hill and generally enjoys coming downtown, but, she says, “You have to strategize. There’s a lot of planning.” Edkin says she’ll try to come downtown for dinner on a Monday night, when parking’s easier to find, but she says events like First Fridays or UT football games can try her patience. If she gets downtown too late, and the Market Square Garage is full, she says she often finds herself circling for ages.

“The drawback is that I don’t know a whole lot. I know about the garage, but not the street parking,” Edkin says. “And I don’t mind paying $2 or something, but if it’s a lot more than that—”

ONLINE PARKING ASSIST: The Central Business Improvement District produced this website guide to downtown parking, though its existence hasn’t been publicized much.

ONLINE PARKING ASSIST: The Central Business Improvement District produced this website guide to downtown parking, though its existence hasn’t been publicized much.

It’s people like Edkin that the CBID is trying to reach with its recently launched website, ParkDowntownKnoxville.org. CBID director Michele Hummel says she hopes the interactive map will be able to answer most Knoxvillians’ questions about parking in the different parts of downtown—which garages are free at night, what the hourly rates are, whether you can pay with cash or not. There’s even the ability to add your own Yelp-like rating of the lots, but no one appears to have done so.

And that’s kind of the problem. Edkin says she heard of the website, once, and then forgot about it—but not many other people are even aware that it exists. I had never heard of it until last week. Kim Bumpas, the president of Visit Knoxville, had never heard of it until I mentioned it to her (nor had the other Visit Knoxville staff she asked about it).

“We could help promote that more,” Hummel admits.

CBID has also been directing people to download an app called Parker for their smartphones—it geolocates you and shows you info on the nearest parking garages and surface lots—but when I played with the app last week, the info for half the lots in downtown Knoxville was blank. Knowing where a garage is can be useful, of course, but knowing the rates and hours of operation is half of the point.

Also, neither the app nor the website has info on street parking, which seems like a missed opportunity. If you don’t care about parking your car in a covered garage, the long-term metered parking on the outskirts of downtown (the Gay Street viaduct and South Central Street, among other locations) is a lot cheaper than a surface lot. I’d wager most non-downtown denizens have no idea those spots exist.

“If I’m a tourism board or a downtown organization, I’d work to improve messaging and communication,” says Wood. “You’re not going to get these people with a brochure and a map, because they’re not downtown enough.”

***

Somewhat surprisingly, it isn’t tourists who have the most trouble figuring out parking downtown.

“Most of our visitors are pretty used to a downtown setting, so they don’t complain about that,” Bumpas says. “If you go to downtown Nashville, you’re going to pay double what you’d pay here for parking.”

Although it certainly doesn’t hurt that most conventioneers only park once, at their hotel, and then spend the rest of their time in Knoxville on foot, Bumpas says that, contrary to the perception of many Knoxville residents, downtown is perceived as incredibly compact and easy to get around by tourists.

“One consultant told us about the giant expo and convention center in Las Vegas—that’s longer, from one end to the other, than the distance from the Marriott to the convention center on Henley,” Bumpas says. “I think [our walkability] is a great added value.”

Bumpas admits downtown parking needs better signage—a problem she hopes will be solved when the long-awaited wayfinding program finally kicks into gear this winter—but she says her staff just doesn’t hear the negativity that city officials do.

“We never run into complaints from visitors on parking or towing,” Bumpas says.

Those city complaints, however—they’ve increased quite a bit of late, even though it’s not technically the city’s fault.

NOT-SO-NICE BOOTS: Under a 2008 ordinance, private parking lots are allowed to boot cars parked illegally and charge a $75 fine to remove the boot (left). However, the city plans to introduce an amendment to the booting ordinance at next week’s City Council meeting.

NOT-SO-NICE BOOTS: Under a 2008 ordinance, private parking lots are allowed to boot cars parked illegally and charge a $75 fine to remove the boot (left). However, the city plans to introduce an amendment to the booting ordinance at next week’s City Council meeting.

Under a 2008 ordinance, private parking lots are allowed to boot cars parked illegally and charge a $75 fine to remove the boot. But in recent months, certain lot operators have expanded their definition of what constitutes “illegal” parking—payment for an “all-day” lot might actually end at 5 p.m., for example, or a car that pays a fee for “all-day parking” but exits at some point only to return a few minutes later might now be required to pay a an “all-day” fee all over again. If the drivers don’t know all the different rules and restrictions, which vary from lot to lot, they might end up with a boot on their car.

Or two. Or three.

The City of Knoxville’s downtown coordinator, Rick Emmett, is not happy about these developments.

“There ought to be a maximum number of boots you can put on a car,” Emmett says. “It seems like some of these companies are taking advantage of the situation to make more money.”

The city plans to introduce an amendment to the booting ordinance at next week’s City Council meeting. The language wasn’t ready for review by press time, but Emmett says it will help clarify that cars are not supposed to be booted multiple times, and it may tweak the signage requirements.

UNCLEAR SIGNAGE: Downtown parking’s endless variations of hours and fines can become even more confusing to visitors once they think they are parking their cars in a “public” lot during free hours—only to discover it’s actually a pay lot.

UNCLEAR SIGNAGE: Downtown parking’s endless variations of hours and fines can become even more confusing to visitors once they think they are parking their cars in a “public” lot during free hours—only to discover it’s actually a pay lot.

Parking lots are required to have a 2-foot by 2-foot reflective sign with red 2-inch lettering warning of booting, which Emmett says most lots have. Yet since a number of lots also say “PUBLIC PARKING” in much bigger lettering, people get confused and think they’re parking in a city lot. (The city, for its part, does not often boot cars, but it will tow cars parked illegally, like in front of fire hydrants.)

Still, the damage from the booting outbreak has already been done. One non-profit coordinator I know says she’s lost volunteers after a couple had their cars booted for parking in the wrong lot—they refuse to come downtown anymore, she told me. (She didn’t want her agency named for worry of losing more.)

Emmett says that, while the city only has so much control over private lots (which is to say, not much at all), he is working to spearhead a coordinated effort from other agencies to make parking easier, at least in the city-owned lots and on the street.

“We want to have consistency in the parking. We want signs to be consistent, we want enforcement to be consistent,” Emmett says.

Emmett says that in the past couple of months, the city has formed a parking committee, with representatives from his office, the engineering department, the Knoxville Police Department, and the Public Building Authority. He says the group is taking a thorough look at all of the on-street parking and trying to figure out where signage is needed, the placement of loading zones versus parking, etc.

“Everyone has their own specific issue. It gets pretty complicated,” Emmett says.

The city will also soon be partnering with PBA on parking enforcement on Gay Street, to help improve turnover and enforce the new two-hour parking restrictions that went into effect in March. There’s no word yet on what the contract will cost, but Emmett says the PBA officers will be dressed in the same uniforms as the KPD officers.

That’s a mistake, says Wood, who has worked with cities like Asheville and Atlanta to improve their downtown parking experiences.

“Those uniforms create the impression of parking officers, that they’re there to give you a ticket,” Wood says.

He suggests enforcement officers dressed in neutral outfits, like khakis and a polo shirt with a city logo—an ambassador model that puts people more at ease, where officers aren’t just writing tickets but answering questions and helping with directions.

Wood also thinks new technology, like smartphones with special apps, can be used for a ticketing enforcement that is both more lenient and more proactive. Parking officers would only need to snap pictures of the license plate of the car to pull up the driver’s history.

“You might just write a warning for a car with out-of-state plates, or someone who hasn’t had a ticket for a year,” Wood says. For someone with recent parking violations, you could increase the fine with every ticket. Wood says this kind of ticket forgiveness enforcement makes people who don’t regularly come downtown feel more comfortable about doing do.

“I like the idea, but we don’t have that technology yet,” Emmett says with a sigh. “But I’d love to get an ambassador program going one day—we’ve talked about that for a year.”

The city is actually working with CBID on something that might eventually look like an ambassador program (although the officers are likely to remain in uniform for the time being). A group of UT MBA students recently completed a study on how to make downtown feel more welcoming, and one of the suggestions was city-sponsored valet parking. You’d pull up to a curb at Market Square or in the Old City, pay a few dollars, and toss your keys to the valet—no more circling the streets or parking decks, looking for a spot.

The plan is still in its early stages, Emmett says, so none of the potential locations or pricing has been determined, but he hopes to get it before City Council next year. Any proceeds from the valet program would return to the CBID and could help pay for an ambassador program.

The restaurants Shuck and Cru on the 100 block of Gay Street have offered free valet parking for their diners since last fall. The valet service is technically illegal (there is no ordinance either allowing or banning valet parking), although Cru general manager Joan Marshall says the restaurant had no idea it was doing anything wrong until just a few weeks ago. She says the city has told them it is looking the other way, as long as the service remains free, until it gets a valet parking ordinance in place.

“It’s really alleviated the frustration of people coming downtown to dine with us,” Marshall says. “They like being able to just drop their car off.”

***

COMING SOON: The State Street Garage is still undergoing expansion construction, delaying its planned August 1 opening. The project will add 330 new spaces to help meet the need for more residential parking as multiple new apartment projects downtown start coming online.

COMING SOON: The State Street Garage is still undergoing expansion construction, delaying its planned August 1 opening. The project will add 330 new spaces to help meet the need for more residential parking as multiple new apartment projects downtown start coming online.

The State Street Garage expansion is supposed to be complete sometime in September, delayed from its original Aug. 1 completion date, but those 330 new spaces should help meet the need for more residential parking as the multiple new apartment projects downtown start coming online.

On Tuesday, two developers (Walnut Street Garage LLC and Public Facilities Investment Corporation) responded to the city’s RFP for the new TVA garage on Locust Street, which should add 800 to 1,000 new parking spaces. It will be all (or mostly) TVA parking during the day, but like the city’s other garages, it will be free to the public on nights and weekends. And since the city issued the RFP, the structure will have to follow Downtown Design Review guidelines, which means streetfront retail and office space.

Yet by the time Knoxville’s newest garage opens, Knoxville’s oldest garage—and, perhaps, the second-oldest garage in the country—may be gone. Gone to make way for more parking.

The Pryor Brown garage on the corner of Church Avenue and Market Street may not have the art deco appeal of some of its contemporary late 1920s structures, but it has what all the mid-century parking decks around town do not: Retail and office space on the first floor. If Knox Heritage is unsuccessful in convincing the owners to keep the garage, all of that will be gone, turning that entire block into one giant surface parking lot.

City Council member Marshall Stair (who just happens to live across the street from the garage), is concerned about the impending demolition.

“While we certainly need to provide parking to downtown visitors, surface parking lots can be detrimental to the vibe of downtown.” Stair says.

That’s why Knox Heritage’s Kim Trent has been talking to Stair and other Council members about potential changes to the Downtown Design Review guidelines that could prohibit or much more strictly limit demolitions for parking lots.

“I want to do anything possible to discourage more surface parking lots,” Trent says. “It’s not an efficient use of space in an urban environment.”

The historic Pryor Brown Garage may soon become surface parking unless efforts by Knox Heritage to convince the owners to keep it intact are successful.

The historic Pryor Brown Garage may soon become surface parking unless efforts by Knox Heritage to convince the owners to keep it intact are successful.

At its last meeting, the Downtown Design Review Board passed a motion to recommend to the city that it issue a moratorium on further downtown demolition permits until Metropolitan Planning Commission staff and the board clarify the demolition guidelines. MPC executive director Mark Donaldson says his staff is working on a letter to the mayor requesting the moratorium. It probably won’t go before Council next week but could be on the agenda for the Aug. 20 meeting.

If Council supports the temporary moratorium, MPC staff is likely to study ordinances in cities that ban downtown demolitions for surface parking lots, like Jacksonville, Fla., Salt Lake City, and Tulsa, Okla. Trent also notes that cities like Denver and the Highland Park neighborhood of Chicago increase taxes on property owners who tear down a building without building something else back.

Wood says he’s a fan of the latter approach—higher taxes or implementing strict form-based codes to disincentivize surface parking lots—instead of an outright ban.

“The word ‘ban’ is tough. It should be more about creating the incentive to not have a surface parking lot. Bans set up an us-versus-them mentality and create the potential for backlash,” Wood says.

Mayor Madeline Rogero says she doesn’t have a position on the matter, either the potential moratorium or a potential ban, but she sounds somewhat doubtful about more restrictions.

“In general we prefer to be proactive in incentives than getting restrictive with more regulations,” Rogero says. “What we’re trying to do is create a downtown where property has a higher value than a parking lot.”

Other Council members contacted said they didn’t know enough about the situation to comment, but Stair says he’ll definitely push for a moratorium.

“I support doing what we can to prevent building any more surface parking lots,” Stair says.

Wood notes that an investor in Spokane, Wash., recently renovated a 1928 downtown garage and turned it into a luxury parking destination, with valet parking, car washes, and more. He says something similar could happen with Pryor Brown.

“That’s a truly historic building, and they should do everything possible to save it,” Wood says.

Trent says she is in talks with the owners about looking into historic tax credits for renovations, but she’s not very hopeful at this point. Because the application for demolition has already been submitted, any changes that may happen to the demolition guidelines won’t affect Pryor Brown’s fate.

Yet for all the surface parking lots, all the booting, all the tickets, all the frustrations of parking downtown, these are actually good problems to have.

“Nobody ever comes downtown to park,” says Wood. “They come because it’s a destination.”

And while the urban landscape will never win over everyone, those it has are willing to deal with the occasional hassle.

“I think we’ve come a long way in a very short amount of time,” says Edkin. “And I think it’s clear that the city’s trying to make things better.”

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 2

3RunHomer writes:

No new regulations are required on creating parking lots downtown. The zoning ordinance says that parking lots are not allowed by right! All the city needs to do is stop allowing zoning variances. (Somebody needs to inform the Mayor about the zoning.)

Swanky writes:

That website is worthless. You can see all the lots, etc., but you have to click and go to another page to find out the lot is monthly only, then when you go back, you are defaulted again and have to browse to where you want to go and click and... Worthless.

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