Franklin's fix for parking

Downtown garages set stage for success that has produced need for more spots [Online-only content]

When developers Rod Heller and Jay Franks in mid-July unveiled ambitious plans to redevelop almost an entire city block of downtown Franklin, the reaction of the local business owners and residents was generally receptive.

Unlike their Brentwood neighbors to the north, where a similar and larger mixed-use plan went down in flames earlier this year, Franklin officials have been active in designing the 16-block focal point of their community to be a pleasant experience for those who work, shop or dine there. The city’s work to keep up with and guide downtown’s growth has been paying off in the form of more visitors and higher revenues.

The foundations of that success won’t be found on the flowers that hang from streetlights, the quaint shops lining Main Street or the numerous festivals thrown by the area’s merchants. Those features and events have long been there but their vitality ebbed and flowed more than a truly healthy local economy should have. Shoppers, diners and festivalgoers needed to know the infrastructure was there to accommodate them. (To read "Where to put the cars" from the Boom magazine, click here.)

About a decade ago, those assurances materialized in the form of two garages that can hold hundreds of cars. The first, on Second Avenue, began rising in 2001. The second structure, on Fourth Avenue next to the new Williamson County courthouse, was built in 2004 for $4 million.

“The construction of those parking garages turned everything around for downtown Franklin business owners,” says Nancy Williams, director of the Downtown Franklin Association.

People noticed the change and downtown merchants soon found themselves on more stable footing. Bob Roethemeyer, owner of the Avec Moi gifts and home décor store, says the garages helped avoid gridlock.

“If we did not have them, I can’t imagine what working and shopping in downtown Franklin would be like,” Roethemeyer says. “We would not be the place that people come down to to spend the day.”

Williams says the free parking provided by the city has kept storefronts mostly full and you no longer see classic older buildings falling into disrepair as they have done in so many other small town centers. In fact, it’s gone the other way: In August, the building formerly home to the Grays drugstore — which had sat empty for several years — reopened as a restaurant and music venue.

Downtown Franklin has been so successful in the past decade that a number of stakeholders are now clamoring for more garages. The hotel and apartment project being proposed by Heller and Franks development includes a parking garage, but Williams says, “We still need one on the 400 block [of Main] behind Starbucks.”

Williams concedes planning for such projects takes time and money and praised the foresight of city leaders who helped bring about today’s success. (She pointed out that the two existing garages were actually built under budget.) But Roethemeyer says a busy day at the courthouse makes it a lot harder to find a parking spot and Williams’ group has put before Franklin’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen a proposal to have valet parking services alleviate congestion on Friday and Saturday nights. She says the cost would be around $3 but that parking could be validated by local businesses.

If the $80 million Heller-Franks plan come to fruition, the lesser-used Second Avenue garage would probably become more congested as it and other shopping and dining options are added to the east of Public Square.

Because of that and the addition of Grays, Roethemeyer says city leaders must rely on the forward thinking they used when the first two garages were built.

“Basic infrastructure such as removing telephone poles and putting the garages in have enhanced the downtown experience,” he says. “It is unusual to have a 16-block town in the South with two garages. We will need a third.”

That conversation is in its very early stages and city officials say they’re open to planning for a third public facility, one that would be completely independent of the Heller-Franks development. But at a cost of $15,000 per space, allocating the cash will take a while and might call for some financial contributions from area merchants. That’s the price of success.