The Overton Park Conservancy is using the summer-to-fall lull at the park to take another look at how to handle the large crowds the park draws as it adds and renovates attractions.
Cars line up to park on Free Tuesday at the Memphis Zoo. Overflow parking frequently flows onto the greensward in Overton Park north of Rainbow Lake. The summer season parking crunch reached its apex on the July 13 weekend with the finale of the Shell’s summer concert season.
(Daily News/Lance Murphey)
Shuttle buses the conservancy experimented with twice this year worked well. There might be a way to reconfigure the park’s flow, and all of the institutions in the park are talking with each other regularly about events they are planning.
“As the park itself and the attractions within the park become more popular, we are going to see an increase in people coming into the park,” said Tina Sullivan, executive director of the Overton Park Conservancy. “Our first strategy is actually to try to get people to access the park in ways other than their cars. That’s the first line of defense.”
The conservancy maintains and operates the park under contract with the city of Memphis and is coordinating a master plan that includes additional improvements.
The conservancy’s reach does not include institutions like the Memphis Zoo, the Levitt Shell and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which also draw large crowds to the park.
Sullivan said the conservancy’s effort to get a handle on traffic and access and plan accordingly involves watching the crowds and how they use the park.
“We are doing that by looking at how people access the park and making improvements to those access points that make them more welcoming to bikes and pedestrians,” she said.
The conservancy hopes to have a report from its consultant in another two months with some observations and recommendations.
“For instance, if we need to reconfigure the parking lot near the Rainbow Lake playground, there may be a way to make it more efficient to get more cars into the existing space and eliminate some of the bottlenecks that happen around that area,” Sullivan said.
The area around the lake has been renovated with a new playground, pavilion, restroom and picnic area. And the nearby Overton Bark dog park just marked its first anniversary.
The report will include one of the most sensitive topics when it comes to traffic in Overton Park – overflow parking by zoo visitors on a part of the greensward that is the largest open green area in the park.
The zoo uses the area under a 10-year-old agreement with the city of Memphis that predates the conservancy.
“We try to remain very mindful of the area,” said Laura Doty, communications specialist for the Memphis Zoo. “There’s an imaginary line that’s drawn to restrict parking. We make sure to leave at least half of the area unused for other activities.”
On busy days at the zoo, the overflow parking gets within a few yards of the Doughboy statue.
The zoo has had long-held plans for a 500-space parking garage, and from its formation the conservancy has endorsed the project, which is not within its scope.
“A parking garage is in the works, but right now we are trying to locate funding for such an effort,” Doty said. “That might be a ways off.”
Sullivan said if the upcoming study can create some new parking spaces within the existing configuration, the garage might not be as large or expensive.
“If we look at existing parking in and around the park and how we might take advantage of our existing space … that number could go down,” she said. “We could need fewer spaces and that makes the price tag a little easier.”
The nearby Overton Square parking garage now under construction could also be a factor in the park’s parking puzzle.
“There’s a lot of opportunity there to bring people in to park there if Overton Square management is interested,” Sullivan added.
The zoo and the conservancy talk regularly, and Sullivan wants that kind of coordination among all of the park institutions as they plan events.
“We’re trying to make sure that we all communicate with each other when we plan an event that is going to be a big draw and create its own parking issues so that we can avoid having multiple events on one day and completely shutting down the park,” she said.
The experiments with shuttle buses in Crosstown and at First Baptist Church at Poplar and East Parkway across the eastern border from the park worked well, Sullivan added.
“The second one was twice as popular as the first one. So we are definitely moving in the right direction. Our goal was to see if people would take advantage of a shuttle,” she said. “Clearly we’ve proven that hundreds of people are interested in taking a shuttle rather than driving around the park looking for a space. So, now that we’ve proven people are interested, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it work financially.”