Does downtown Chattanooga have too much parking? Or too little?
Too little, say downtown business owners and developers: customers can't find places to park.
Too much, counter urban designers: Chattanooga streets are boring to walk through.
Very different opinions. But one thing everyone agrees on is that parking will be critical to Chattanooga's future. The Scenic City needs to find the right balance between parking and development - just enough parking to make it appealing for people to live, shop or eat downtown, but not so much that streets feel like empty asphalt-covered wastelands.
The first step toward that utopia-like balance is figuring out what Chattanooga's parking reality is, said Julie Campoli, an urban design consultant in Vermont and author of "Made for Walking," a book that examines neighborhoods in 34 cities across the United States and Canada.
"Do you not have enough [parking spaces] because you've counted them and the numbers don't add up?" she said. "Or is it just a perception? Because the perception is often different from reality. It's often based on the emotional experience of trying to get a spot right in front of the store or office you want to go to and not being able to."
She visited Chattanooga in October and immediately thought the city supports too much surface parking.
"I rode bikes and walked around your downtown for three days and I saw empty parking lots everywhere I went," she said, guesstimating that half of downtown is surface parking. "I can't imagine how you could have a hard time parking in downtown Chattanooga."
But you can, said Brandi O'Neal, owner of Flatiron Deli on Walnut Street. She's been in business for five years and a lack of on-site parking is an increasing problem.
"Parking is a big issue for me," she said. "It's definitely affected business. People tell me they stay away."
On-street parking is often filled from open to close with little turnover, and while there's a paid public parking lot about two blocks away, it's not close enough to benefit her business, she said. Sometimes customers don't want to walk.
"The reality is, people from TVA aren't going to walk nine blocks to get here," she said. "They're not. Not in the wintertime."
That don't-want-to-walk attitude is part of the challenge with downtown parking, said restaurateur Mike Monen. Sometimes customers stay away because they think they won't be able to get a spot, even when in reality, they could.
Monen owns four Chattanooga restaurants: Taco Mamacita, Milk and Honey, Urban Stack and Community Pie. Taco Mamacita is built on an 80-car lot on the North Shore, while Community Pie is in the 800 block of Market with no on-site parking.
"I really believe it's a perception thing," he said. "There's a lot of good on-street parking, but the perception of [Community Pie's] parking is a challenge."
Two restaurants across the street from Community Pie both closed within the last six weeks. A few doors down, Chattanooga developer Trey Moss bought the Chattanooga Bank Building at the corner of Eighth and Market with plans to transform it into 74 high-end apartments. But the plan fizzled when Moss couldn't figure out where to put the 350 parking spaces the project required.
"We wanted to do a higher-end development there and thought that it was crucial to have parking within a 150- to 200-yard walk to the building," he said. "There's plenty of parking downtown in certain areas, but that central business district is an area that really has a lack of parking."
Still, part of what makes a downtown is higher retail and housing density than suburbs, said Christian Rushing, principal of Studio C. Rushing. He analyzed downtown parking as part of soon-to-be released study for River City Company that will suggest plans for downtown's future.
"I don't see that there's a tension between parking and density because the fact is that in a city of our size, people drive," he said. "That's just a normal fact of life, and we have to accommodate that. They are in a sense, apples and oranges. Because parking can have density or not density, and density can include parking or not parking. I think we need both."
One way to achieve both downtown density and parking is through parking garages, said Kim White president and CEO of River City Company. She'd like to build a new parking deck somewhere in the 700 block of Market and Broad streets that could serve several of the now-vacant buildings nearby.
"Part of a struggle in a downtown is trying to make sure you have parking in the right places," she said. "Maybe we have great parking if you add all those spaces together, but they aren't in the right places. Sometimes you need parking to unlock the potential of a block."
But Campoli believes that the best downtowns shun traditional parking in favor of more flexible parking options. A lot that's used for employee parking could be opened for public parking after 5 p.m., she said. Rigid parking regulations could be lifted to encourage developers to target vacant buildings.
"If you want to have a business rich and productive downtown, you have to start letting go of the attitude that it requires a lot of parking," she said. "Because in the end, you end up with a lot of empty space that doesn't pay for itself."
River City is already working with business owners to set up shared parking programs, White said. But a key to making that happen is bringing more residential into downtown, she said.
"If we can get the density we need with residential, then absolutely there will be times we can share parking," she said. "We think we can get 750 units of residential housing in the middle of the city, and that's going to take parking to support it."
By hypothetically building a new parking deck, White hopes to lure those residential developments downtown. Then, she expects that some of the surface parking lots - lots she calls 'placeholders' - will be sold and developed to support that residential growth.
"Surface parking lots leave gaps in the city," she said. "So it's not as interesting to walk by and it seems like it's a lot longer to walk by than it really is. Our goal is to fill downtown with interesting shops and housing so you have that vibrancy."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or email@example.com.