We’ve talked about parking from every possible angle, right? We’ve covered the damage surface parking lots do to the city. We’ve talked about expansion of parking garages, the construction of parking garages and, recently, the possible demolition of a parking garage. We’ve talked about the myth that there is no parking downtown and argued about whether there is too little, enough or too much. We’ve talked about building multi-use parking garages and avoiding a garage district in on part of town. What’s left to talk about?
A friend texted me a week ago Sunday and asked me to come look at something, suggesting it may be a story I’d want to cover. I arrived too late to witness the scene he described: A single car in an otherwise empty parking lot at the corner of Gay and Church, across from the old KUB building was booted for either lack of payment or staying beyond its paid time. An elderly woman sobbed while paying $75 to have her car unbooted. The person with the keys is an employee of Premier Parking.
We walked up Church and he pointed out two other lots operated by the same company: the lot across from the Hilton and the lot behind St. John’s. Each of the lots have a sign that says “Central Parking,” but another that notes “Premier Parking” will enforce the rules by booting the cars and charging $75 to have them removed.
Still, I thought, “But it’s their lot, how can a violator complain?” I learned that Ed Shouse, County Commissioner, attended a recent CBID meeting in which he pointed out that he had noted numerous cars booted on recent Saturdays during the Market Square Farmers’ Market. Many of the cars bore license plates from out of the county and some from out of state. He expressed concern that these individuals left town with a negative experience that will likely prevent their return.
The week drifted on and I considered what I’d heard, but I remained uncertain. On an emotional level, I regret anyone being booted and particularly hate it when our city is seen in a negative light. On an intellectual level, I kept coming back to the fact that these individuals made a decision to park illegally and got caught. The blame seems to lie squarely on their shoulders.
Then I remembered being told recently by my neighbors that they watched as cars were booted withing a minute or two of parking in the lot at the corner of Union and Locust. They concluded the only way the cars could be consistently spotted instantly was if someone was watching from the upper floors of the Locust Street Garage. The lot is under Premier control until 5:00 PM each day at which time it is taken over by Chesapeake’s. They witnessed a waiter arrive for a 5:00 PM shift at 4:55 PM who got booted as soon as he walked away. After an intense argument the boot was removed.
I talked to another friend who owns a pass to park in that lot. She said she had been booted twice because her tag wasn’t displayed on the dash even though their electronic sensor can tell the pass is present. Others who own passes said they were giving them up in exchange for parking in the Locust Street Garage for similar reasons.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that the lot would not be monitored on July 4th. Two cars parked in the lot before 5:00 PM and both were booted. Someone placed a sign in the lot warning people not to park there and the sign was destroyed and moved. Clearly, the intent was for people to park there in order to boot them and thereby generate revenue.
The worst situation happened the next day. With July 4th coming on a Thursday, many people took a long weekend. Downtown was busier than the day before, but not so much. Again, two cars were booted while I happened to be watching. One young couple waited sullenly for the arrival of the Premier representative, but when he arrived another male confronted him angrily resulting in assault charges as he was cuffed and carried away by police.
So, how can I defend these people? What is there to say but, “they had it coming?” Well, I think there are some reasons to pause in our rush to judgement. For starters, are the signs posted properly? In the lot where the fight happened, it is entirely possible to enter without seeing the sign – it faces away from the entrance. Given the most common end of the lot people park on and the most common direction they walk (toward Market Square), they could easily never see the sign. I’m not sure but what the same might be true in the other lots.
Also, where is the consistency? The lot where the fight took place is reserved Monday through Friday from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM for those who pay monthly. After 5:00 each day it is reserved for Chesapeake’s customers, but it is very lightly monitored during that time. Saturday morning and Sunday morning no one watches the lot and Pete’s customers, among others, park there at no cost. That’s a pretty complicated schedule. One might easily see a Pete’s Saturday morning regular parking there on July 4th.
The other lots are pay lots, but there’s no attendant. Surely everyone would understand the need to pay in these at all times, right? That’s what the sign says. On the other hand, some city-owned lots are free on nights and weekends. Most of the parking garages in the city are free nights and weekends. We’ve pounded that into the brains of the people who insist there is no parking downtown. “It’s free nights and weekends!” we scream. Maybe they’ve believed us, but don’t understand the distinction between a parking garage operated by Republic and another operated by Premier.
First Friday night I was approached by a desperate looking couple who asked where they could find Gallery 133. Their GPS told them it was on the 100 block, but their artist friend wasn’t there. Of course, Gallery 133 holds exhibitions all over town and Friday night they were in three places: The Sunsphere (easily found), Cook Lofts (but it’s not on Market Square!) and Market 211. Market 211 was where they needed to be, but how to find it? That isn’t an address. It’s above Earth to Old City, but you have to enter through Oodles and there is no sign outside or inside Oodles.
The poor couple had paid to park at a meter on the viaduct just past the 100 Block, even though I believe that isn’t necessary after 6:00 PM. 9:00 was fast approaching and they were in a panic. As we walked toward Market Square and I tried to calm their nerves a bit they said, “This is why we don’t come downtown. It’s too confusing.” The couple was in their twenties and live in Knox County.
This is who we boot to increase revenue for out-of-town companies like Premier. Their object is to make money – not from parking in their lots – but from catching as many people as possible parking illegally. It’s a goal that runs counter to our need to encourage people to come downtown.
What can be done? Signs outside each of these lots directing people to free night and weekend parking would be a good start. My friends John and Karen suggested “goodwill ambassadors” they had encountered in other cities who are paid or volunteer to walk the streets looking for people to assist by directing them to parking or meeting any other need they might have as they visit. Couldn’t CBID pay $10 an hour for UT students to wear a special shirt for a few hours during the Farmers’ Market, for example?
Maybe the city, as it looks at the blight of surface parking and hopefully moves to ban any further increase to its hold on downtown, could also look at regulating the out-of-town companies who are profiteering at the expense of goodwill for our city.