The Illegally Parked Frog Was Toad

Sorry for title, wack joke. But in a way, surface parking lots are a wack joke. One of the very odd things about our city is that a number of the highest profile sites in downtown are surface parking lots.

As our city grid was initially being filled out from its creation in 1838 through the civil war there were no parking lots (as there were no cars). As we continued to develop, our city grid was almost fully built out with structures and their accessory open spaces. As downtown entered its well-documented decline in middle of the last century, a number of buildings that were perceived to have outlived their usefulness were demolished either actively or through neglect. Through the ‘50s and into the ‘80s some of those sites laid vacant and others were turned into parking lots. Parking lots made some of sense, because the auto boom was in full effect and there was no market for the land as building site. As we entered the ‘90s and were able to right the ship, surface lots became a valuable resource. Existing lots remained, and ill-maintained buildings and vacant lots were cleaned up to provide car storage for visitors and downtown workers. From the tourism standpoint it made great sense because our sub-urban visitors could relate to and were made more comfortable by the sub-urban typology of street-level parking. Remember, at that time the experience of going downtown for diversion or entertainment was a foreign concept to a whole generation of Southerners.  

Fast-forward and the city is now in a different position. Downtown is about more than just tourism (although we still love and welcome our visitors), and we have found that for the most part people are not averse to using structured parking. In a sense, we have outgrown surface parking lots. From a city-building standpoint, a surface lot in a downtown makes no sense. A single-use, surface lot is pretty much a dead loss when it comes to animating and energizing the city. They also require a large amount of our scarce land resource. The parking lot itself is an accessory, not a generator- unless you are high school, one does not go somewhere just to park. Additionally, there are numerous environmental downsides to surface lots including negative effects on both quantity and quality of stormwater runoff and contribution to the heat island effect. And frankly, they just look awful and detract from the perceived quality of a place.

Despite the wasteful nature of a surface lot, you can’t fault landowners: they make more money charging for surface parking than they could charging rent in a new building. It’s a pretty straightforward function of the market. As we know, there is no such thing as a good market or bad market, a market simply is. Until the land has greater value as a building site, it will likely remain a surface lot. However, the issue is that the lot as economic generator only benefits the landowner and the lot operator. Whereas, retail stores, offices, restaurants and the like are economic generators with spin off benefits for numerous parties. They are more valuable to the city as a whole.

Lest we fret, there is a silver lining to the surface lot cloud. As they relate to the future of our city, they can be assets. Each of those lots is a potential site for new and exciting economic generators. When “The Next Big Thing” comes to town looking for a home, we have a laundry list of kick-ass sites:
 across 2nd St from the TN Aquarium,  the corner of 4th and Broad, the corner of MLKing and Market, any of the UNUM lots, the old EPB building site
, Riverfront Parkway and Power Alley
, the old Urban Forum block
, the terminus of Patten Parkway
, the list goes on…

Of course there's also rain in that cloud. Instead of the “The Next Big Thing” we could potentially end up with The Next Big Buffalo Wild Wings, The Next Big Applebees, or The Next Big Walgreens. Look at this map and think about what our city could look like if surface lots developed according to principles of good urbanism. Look at the map and think about what our city would look like if the surface lots are lost to sub-urban scheisse...

Behold, the power to transform our downtown- one way or the other...

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