Where to put the cars

Should Metro incentivize the development of structured parking?

Perhaps no issue facing downtown Nashville draws more opinions and debate than parking.

Some folks feel downtown offers an excessive number of surface lots, with those pockets of asphalt masses pockmarking the otherwise attractive aesthetic of the city’s central core. Others contend the average motorist prefers surface lots — for perceived safety, visibility and familiarity reasons — and, as such, downtown needs more.

Despite the varying views, one thing is clear to city planners and urban advocates: the ideal type of parking for a true city setting — assuming all that parking is not going to be discretely concealed underground — is a structured, above-ground garage, preferably with retail on the first level.

In this respect, Metro Government may have a role with the private sector. Since 2000, the city has created three major parking facilities: the Public Square Garage, the Music City Center garage and Gateway Commons garage (at Hall of Fame Park/Hilton).

Since the early 1990s, Metro has also provided incentives, via tax increment financing, for two garages that service private office buildings but allow for night and weekend parking to the general public: 1. the long-completed AT&T Center garage; and 2. an underground garage currently under construction at the Nashville City Center.

What the city has not yet undertaken is an effort to incentivize a privately developed above-ground garage to be used largely, or exclusively, by the general public.

“The idea of a free-standing garage is not a far-off concept given what we have been doing,” says Joe Cain, director of urban development for the Metro Development and Housing Agency. “There are some locations where there is a shortage of parking.”

Metro could take a cue from Knoxville.

Last year, leaders of the East Tennessee city and TVA officials announced plans for a 700- to 1,000-space parking garage that the latter would develop and operate on land donated by the former. The two entities would later scrap that arrangement and opt, instead, to have a private company develop the garage that TVA employees could use during the Monday-Friday workweek and the general citizenry could have access to on weeknights and weekends.

Two development groups recently responded to a request for proposals related to the garage, which is slated for a site at the corner of Summer Place and Locust Street. The city has invested $2.5 million in acquiring property with the development company that garners winning proposal not expected to pay for the land. Construction is targeted to begin the first quarter of 2014.

“I don’t know how often two government agencies come together,” says Christi Branscom, Knoxville deputy mayor and chief operating officer. “I will say it has broadened out horizons and we’re thinking how we can partner with private entities. I used to be a developer. I think we’ll see more of these type ventures. Let’s see what type deals we can strike.”

Branscom says she is familiar with Nashville and sees the potential for Metro to provide a private entity some major incentives to develop a structured garage downtown, particularly in SoBro.

“I have seen the new MCC,” he says. “It depends on the circumstances and timing. It’s about having the right parties at the table who will think outside the box.”

MDHA’s Cain says that, notwithstanding the previously mentioned AT&T Tower and Nashville City Center garages, “We have been incentivizing but not necessarily for a free-standing [above-ground] garage.” 

When asked if MDHA could perhaps oversee a public/private structured garage effort in, for example, The Gulch, Cain says, “Yes. I think so.”

“It was contemplated before the recession,” he says. “You have to have parking to support the [Gulch] retail.

“Cars are going to be around and we’ll have to continue to park them,” Cain adds. “Even if mass transit takes off, with more development there will still be a need for parking.”

Lisa Woodruff, director at the Nashville office of global real estate program management and construction consultancy Turner & Townsend, says city officials face a balancing act of sorts.

“[Metro] should consider creating private development opportunities, but at the same time, maintain a controlling hand in order to minimize the effect that new developments would have on existing green space and maintain the character of the city,” she says. “With a public/private partnership, the governing body could maintain the ability for final approval, while at the same time providing incentives for private participants or partners.”