Parking problem? Charrette about it

All of a sudden, the city has gone charrette crazy. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, mayor Steve Gruendl told the council he thought holding a charrette—a fancy term for a series of planning workshops that the public is invited to participate in—might be the best way to avoid a nasty fight over the city’s plans to build a parking structure at Second and Wall streets.

“My hope is that this would allow the community to walk away with an agreed-upon vision for downtown,” Gruendl said.

The mayor said the idea struck him as he was attending a recent charrette dealing with the expansion and redesign of Enloe Medical Center, an issue that had sorely divided the Avenues neighborhood. That week-long effort ended in a new design for the expansion that placated many neighbors’ concerns about traffic, aesthetics and other impacts.

But opponents of the parking garage are already suspicious, with some accusing the city of trying to co-opt their momentum.

“We don’t need a charade,” mocked Kelly Meagher, who helped circulate a referendum against the city’s plan to keep parking meters operating until 10 p.m. The money raised from extending meter hours would have helped pay for a parking structure to be built. Signatures on the referendum petition are currently being verified by the county. If it qualifies, Meagher said, “we’ll have a campaign and an election. That’s how democracy works.”

The structure itself has become one of the most divisive issues of the year, with those in favor saying there is not enough parking downtown and that without a new structure shoppers will elect to go elsewhere for goods and services. Opponents say there is plenty of parking and note that the university already has plans to build two new parking structures within the next seven years. The Saturday Farmers’ Market, currently held at the Second and Wall site, has also come out against the structure, as vendors say they are afraid of being displaced.

City Planning Director Kim Seidler said a charrette could find an alternative site or design for the structure or could even find that there is no need for one at all.

“We need to determine whether a parking structure is even necessary,” he said. “It’s about getting people to work together. I’m not sure if we’ll end up with a different location or design or what. Maybe we’ll find we don’t need a parking structure if we do other things.”

Alternatives include adding diagonal parking on city streets or constructing a parking garage at the City Hall lot on Fifth and Flume streets. It is not clear at this point whether the city would be bound to follow any design or alternatives proposed by a charrette or whether an environmental review already being conducted for the Second and Wall location will be applicable.