VOL. 7 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 12, 2014
By Bill Dries
It’s been confusing from a distance.
Cyclists cross the intersection at Walnut Grove and Farm Road at the entrance to Shelby Farms Park, which is undergoing a $70 million renovation but is also seeing a delay in funding for the Shelby Farms Parkway.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The formal groundbreaking for Shelby Farms Park’s $70 million “Heart of the Park” improvements, including an expansion of Patriot Lake, came the same week last month the Memphis City Council voted to delay for one year the city’s portion of funding for the Shelby Farms Parkway.
That’s the 30-year-old project that the Shelby Farms Conservancy recently agreed to along with a set of conditions negotiated with state and federal transportation officials.
The two projects overlap, but not enough to stop the improvements that were underway before the formal groundbreaking event with boat paddles last month or the continuing debate about whether the parkway is necessary given the other changes to the park. All of those changes have come along in the interim since the idea of extending Kirby Whitten Road through what was then the old Shelby County Penal Farm grounds first surfaced in the mid-1980s.
The conservancy was a long way from coming into existence at the time. The debate about a park of some kind or residential and commercial development advocated in a report that preceded the Eckbo study advocating parkland use was still raging. And ground had just been broken for Agricenter International on the southern side of Walnut Grove Road.
The council’s decision to delay affected $625,000 in a city match that would have moved the parkway into the design phase, according to city engineer John Cameron. The city’s overall share of the project would be $6 million.
The road is a $35.8 million project, according to state documents and Dennis Lynch, the transportation chairman for the Tennessee Chapter and Chickasaw Group of the Sierra Club. Lynch is one of the most vocal proponents of dropping the road plan.
He says the road project takes too much parkland and would still create an “Interstate-style interchange.”
Lynch and other critics also point out that there is currently no ban in place that would prohibit tractor-trailer rigs on the parkway.
Such a ban will take congressional action and conservancy executive director Laura Adams has said the conservancy’s agreement to terms for the parkway includes a commitment to work with others including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, to win passage of such a ban.
She says the parkway with the concessions the conservancy pushed and negotiated for is necessary for the park and traffic in the area.
Large pumps drain Shelby Farms Park’s Patriot Lake, which is being expanded as part of the “Heart of the Park” improvements.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Adams is concerned that the delay could erode some of the concessions such as no widening of Walnut Grove Road and long-term plans to restore Farm Road as a park road and not the through-road it is currently for so many motorists visiting the park and otherwise.
Former Memphis City Council member John Vergos is among the critics of the parkway plan and, as an attorney in the early 1970s, he was among those who advocated for public use of the penal farm land.
“They immediately jumped to design,” Vergos told the council last month in the discussion of the parkway that led to the delay. “They never established good accurate figures on whether the road is needed. It was always an assumption. … You are putting a lot of trust in traffic engineers.”
Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer has expressed a desire to get the parkway done before more conditions and usage change around its proposed path than have already changed around past paths the roadway was to take.
Cameron noted the state’s interest last month before the council.
“TDOT has been pushing us particularly hard on this project because it has been around for so long,” he said.
Nicole Lawrence, the department’s community relations officer for West Tennessee, said the state’s role has been to help in the planning process.
“But it’s actually a city project,” she said when asked if the state might divert the funding for the parkway to another road project.