Land of the Free 

Downtown parking has its price

Downtown parking has its price

By Christine Kreyling

Developer Jerry Free is batting .500. He struck out on his petition calling for the ouster of Ann Reynolds as executive director of the Metro Historical Commission. But he’d already homered on his request to encroach on a Metro right-of-way for a valet-parking operation next to The Crab House restaurant on Second Avenue South Downtown watchers are wondering just who’s flashing the signals to the one-for-two Free.

They should check out the Metro Courthouse.

On Dec. 19, 1995, Metro Council approved an ordinance sponsored by Council member Julius Sloss licensing C&F Partners—the F is for “Free”—to erect a six-foot-high wrought-iron fence around the area under the Shelby Street Bridge between Third and Second Avenues. Council action was required because the property under the bridge is a public right-of-way owned by the city. According to plans submitted with the ordinance, the space would be used for a valet-parking operation for 42 cars.

At the time of the ordinance’s passage, Free was constructing a building on Second Avenue immediately adjacent to the Shelby Bridge for the Crab House, which occupies C&F-owned property. The ordinance permits C&F Partners to “sub-license” the space under the bridge to the Bayport Restaurant Group for “all activities ancillary to the operation to be known as the Crab House.”

In return for its use of Metro property, C&F Partners agreed to carry general liability insurance covering the space and to pay the city a fee of $5,000 per year. That comes down to $119.05 per parking space per year, or $9.92 per space per month. And that’s cheap parking.

Scott Crane, manager of the nearby Ace of Clubs, once paid $3,000 a month for 22 spaces next to his nightclub. “I don’t do it anymore,” says Crane, “because I couldn’t afford it.” Evening rates for the Central Parking lot next to the bridge are $5 per vehicle. The Crab House charges its customers $3 per car for valet parking. The restaurant can afford to undercut the competition.

How C&F Partners wound up with such a sweetheart deal is a story involving a large chunk of the Metro bureaucracy. Like most smart businessmen, Free started at the top.

On Sept. 13, 1995, Jerry Free met with Mayor Phil Bredesen. He took along Julius Sloss, who represents downtown in Metro Council. According to then-mayoral staffer Vicki Oglesby, who was also in attendance, Free and Sloss requested permission for Free to demolish a staircase that climbed from the ground next to Free’s building to the Shelby Bridge.

“Mr. Free said that vagrants were sitting on the stairs and drinking and harassing people walking below,” says Oglesby. “He promised to replace the stairs at his own expense if the city ever decided it wanted them put back up.”

Oglesby says that Free also asked the mayor for permission to “put up a decorative iron fence to keep the homeless out of a small area where the stairs would be removed. He described it as a sort of terrace, a holding area for customers waiting for tables in the Crab House.

Oglesby says parking was “never” mentioned in that meeting.

Free was out of town and could not be reached for comment, but council member Sloss’ recollection of the mayoral meeting contradicts Oglesby’s account. “I do remember Mr. Free saying in the meeting with the mayor that he would use the space for valet parking.” When asked how the “small area” under the bridge, as described by Oglesby, grew into a space large enough for 42 cars, Sloss says, “The parameters came from the mayor’s office, not from me.”

Sloss and Oglesby concur on one point: The mayor acceded to Free’s request, whatever it was, in the September meeting. The matter was referred to Paul Krivacka, an attorney with the Metro Legal Department. “I was asked to draw up the license to encroach,” Krivacka says, “but I just served as a scribe. The terms of the license were set by the mayor’s office and Free.”

After the ordinance was drawn up, says Krivacka, the document was reviewed and approved by the Public Works Department, the Planning Commission, and the Public Properties Department. He also assumed that the mayoral staff had a final look-see.

“I’ll be honest,” says Oglesby, “when the ordinance went through, I didn’t look at the dimensions of the space Free was asking for. After it passed, I got a call from someone who pointed out just how large of a space had been licensed. I was shocked.”

Oglesby claims that Bredesen would not have authorized the licensing of public property for valet parking had he realized what use Free intended. By way of proof, she points to the result of a later meeting between Free and Bredesen. “Mr. Free explained that he now had an option on the building across the street from the Crab House, and he wanted a license for the space under the bridge between Second and First for valet parking. The mayor said no—that it wasn’t an appropriate use of public space.”

Free has had to make do with one parking lot. It is surrounded by a metal fence that, even if it isn’t topped with razor wire, is hardly “decorative.” There is no terrace. There are no customers being “held”; there are only cars.

The owners and managers of rival businesses in the Broadway area are steaming. They know better than anyone else that parking is at a premium in their territory. Says the Ace of Clubs’ Scott Crane, “I just don’t understand how [Free] is able to get an unbelievable deal like this, when other entrepreneurs can’t.”

Political insiders have a suggestion for other downtown business owners: Throw a fundraiser. That’s what Jerry Free did, according to a District property owner who worked with Free on two such events. One event raised money for Bredesen when he was running for governor; the other raised funds for Sloss’ Council campaign.

If we were talking baseball here, hosting a couple of parties like this wouldn’t necessarily pack enough wallop to get Jerry Free all the way to Cooperstown, but they might be enough to get him into the starting lineup. After that, the old baseball clichés would just need a little dusting off: Keep your pitches on the inside part of the plate, get yourself a good closer in the bullpen, and swing for the fences—even if those fences are only 6 feet of wrought iron.

If we were talking baseball here, hosting a couple of parties like this wouldn’t necessarily pack enough wallop to get Jerry Free all the way to Cooperstown, but they might be enough to get him into the starting lineup. After that, the old baseball clichés would just need a little dusting off: Keep your pitches on the inside part of the plate, get yourself a good closer in the bullpen, and swing for the fences—even if those fences are only 6 feet of wrought iron.

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