My husband, a longtime and therefore long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, turned 30-something a few weeks ago. Since I believe all sports fans deserve to experience in person what it feels like to root for a winner, we jetted off (found a cheapish flight on Southwest) to the Windy City for a celebratory mid-week series at Wrigley Field.
Our plush, luxury penthouse (minimalist AirBnB studio) in the Lincoln Park neighborhood offered convenient access to everything we needed. It was about a 30-minute walk from the stadium, where the Cubs handled — nay, humiliated — the Brewers for four straight games (this part is true). We checked off most of the standard to-do list items in a surprisingly brief amount of time: hot dog with peppers, radioactive-green relish, and tomatoes; a cheese and sauce casserole the locals call "deep dish pizza;" selfies in front of Cloud Gate (the famous "bean" sculpture in Millennium Park); and a retail hike on the Magnificent Mile.
Comparing Memphis to other cities will either harsh your buzz or make you homesick, so I've trained myself to push those thoughts to the back of my mind. It's an especially bad idea in a city three times bigger, in another region, with a different climate. But some things are just too obvious not to notice, which is why sometime during day two I realized I had not seen any parking lots. I saw some parking spaces, mostly tucked behind buildings. I saw parking garages, and parked cars, but none of the asphalt seas that line the streets of our fine city. And everybody appeared to be okay with it! People were walking and biking and waiting for the bus and acting as if they didn't even notice, much less care, that the places they were going to didn't have a space for every single individual to park his or her own vehicle right outside. Can you even imagine such a place? We took a late flight back into Memphis International. As I steered my janky old rolling suitcase through the sliding doors, my first view of "home" was of a mostly empty parking lot.
Since then, parking lots are all I see. I read somewhere last week that Memphis' landmass is three times the size of Detroit's, and I'm convinced most of that consists of parking lots. Downtown and East Memphis are covered in concrete. Germantown Parkway and Winchester Road are just parking lots with names. With the exception of Tiger Lane, which doesn't count, they're all hideous.
Overlay districts by design ensure communities have a consistent look and feel that meet the needs of their stakeholders. In other words, they make neighborhoods look like neighborhoods. Midtown's streets, especially Union Avenue, have benefited from the Midtown Overlay District since it passed six years ago. How about an overlay district for the whole city that dictates that we're all set on parking? Memphis' sprawl problem was not news to me. But experiencing real density firsthand illuminated for me the fact that our city was planned with cars in mind, not people. One could argue it wasn't planned at all and could present some compelling evidence to support that view, but that's a topic for another day. It's as if someone noticed the population leaking eastward and said, "Let's just pave over all the gaps and hope no one notices." Or perhaps "Let's make sure they have a place to park if they ever decide to come back."
If we pave it, they will come?
One takeaway from the protracted battle over the Overton Park Greensward is that "convenient" off-street parking ranks a little too high on a lot of people's priority lists. We saw more of this backwards thinking earlier this summer, when a real estate developer brazenly asserted to the Downtown Memphis Commission that a lack of parking on Front Street was hindering the area's growth. I'm not sure how anyone who's visited South Main in the past few years can say that with a straight face, but I guess a person will say anything when trying to get a project approved.
Here's an idea I hope catches on with public and private developers: Trust people to figure out what to do if they can't find off-street parking. If people are really as put out by walking a couple of blocks as some would have us believe, we'll never be able to compete as a city.
Please build stuff, but no more parking lots. Better yet, build stuff on top of the parking lots that already blanket the city. Parking? We'll find a spot.
Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and digital marketing specialist.