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VOL. 7 | NO. 26 | Saturday, June 21, 2014

Parking Wars

Overton Park controversy points to larger changes for the property

By Bill Dries

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It’s been a hot, humid and restless spring at Overton Park.

The park has been crowded, but not as crowded as expected given the political tempest over parking on Overton’s greensward.

Once the shuttle buses between Overton Park and the Overton Square garage end their June trial period, the discussion about parking in the park and how citizens use the Midtown landmark will shift to a larger plan and bigger questions to be resolved.

The zoo has begun shuttling visitors from different areas of the park to help avoid issues in their designated parking areas.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The shuttles had been talked about before May when several Central High School students accelerated the pace by pulling up lawn chairs on the north end of the park’s greensward to block overflow zoo parking on the green space.

The protest picked up momentum quickly and the shuttles became the quick but temporary solution. They also prompted movement in talks among the zoo, the Overton Park Conservancy, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park and the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

The controversy over the parking on the greensward isn’t new. There had been talks in the past but they had not produced any agreement on ending the 20-year practice, just a general idea of setting an end for greensward parking over a period of years.

When Wharton in May backed the shuttles and an end sometime this year to parking on the greensward, zoo leaders balked.

Through emails and Facebook messages that all became public, the different sides in the dispute parted company on a fledgling shuttle agreement, with the zoo withdrawing funding for the shuttle, saying it was inadequate. Get Off Our Lawn, the group that mounted the sit-ins – stopping just short of testing police directives that might have led to arrests – began raising money from other sources to keep the shuttles going.

“Quite frankly we launched them just before the weather started getting warm and rainy and humid,” said Tina Sullivan, executive director of the conservancy. “Attendance at the zoo and numbers of people visiting the park are both down. There has not been a tremendous need for parking relief. The shuttles have not been as heavily used as we had hoped. We’d still love to try again during one of this year’s peak seasons when we know there will be a series of weekends where attendance is heavy.”

For Saturday, June 14, all sides agreed to let the zoo use part of the greensward for overflow parking as the zoo hosted a private, after-hours event. That Saturday, the Marisol exhibit opened at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and Rosanne Cash played the Levitt Shell to a crowd whose lawn chairs went beyond the Shell’s bowl to the edge of the Brooks courtyard.

In exchange for the greensward parking that weekend, the shuttle trial period was extended another week to the weekend of June 27-29. And the zoo agreed to contribute $2,000 toward the shuttle expenses.

The weather only gets hotter with the arrival of summer on June 21. So the next peak period for the park, including the zoo, is likely in September when the summer begins to yield.

The shuttles were getting more use by the June 7 Day of Merrymaking on the greensward. So was a bike valet service on the southern edge of the greensward.

From Overton Bark, the dog park by the park’s nine-hole golf course, the greensward view was free of cars, although a few moving on the paved zoo parking lots could be glimpsed through the cover of magnolia trees that mark the border between zoo property and greensward.

The parking overage made its presence known elsewhere. With the zoo parking lots full and the daylong Moon River Music Festival at the Levitt Shell, five cars were parked vertically on the west side of the Brooks, including a car parked between the two lions that frame the start of the stairs to the top of the hill that the museum is on.

From the greensward’s zoo border looking south across the greensward you can see the back of the Doughboy statute in Veterans Plaza and a corner of the distinctive top of the Memphis College of Art building emerging from the tree canopy all around the greensward.

The treeless space clear of any cars is a vista that promises solitude and community at the same time in what is Midtown’s back yard.

The number of events that can be taking place at one time in such a condensed area has created a real parking issue in and around Overton Park, The Memphis Zoo and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

(Memphis News File Photos)

Unlike any other park in Memphis, Overton Park includes a set of separate institutions from the zoo – the Levitt Shell, the Brooks Museum, Memphis College of Art and, since 2011, the Old Forest.

On the western end of the Old Forest, where the road splits into a fork going east, are two orange metal strips affixed to trees on both sides of the road identifying the area as a state natural area. “All natural features protected,” it reads below the logo of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Zoo leaders proposed a tram from a proposed parking garage or lot on what is now the city maintenance lot at East Parkway and Poplar through the Old Forest to the zoo as a permanent parking solution.

In the process, they outed the lot as the possible and likely site for the museum of photographer William Eggleston’s works. The Eggleston Museum is the reason Wharton advocated the maintenance area as a temporary site only for zoo overflow parking.

The idea of a tram through the forest touches more political nerve endings than the greensward parking. They were rubbed raw in 2008 when the zoo took down four acres of trees on its edge of the Old Forest to build the Grand Teton Trek exhibit.

The controversy prompted the reactivation of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, the group that filed the landmark case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and stopped plans to run Interstate 40 through the park.

“Our board clearly opposes the use of trams or any motorized vehicles through the forest other than service or emergency vehicles,” Sullivan said. “We’ve made that position clear to the city.”

Thomas Whitehead, a spokesman for the zoo, said, “That’s going to be a city decision. That is not anything I think the zoo is going to be executing.”

Eric Ward, deputy communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which is the state agency that governs the Old Forest since it became a state natural area, said rules allow the forest roads to be used only “for management purposes or public access as part of a trail system.”

“We have not received an official request from the property owners that would suggest a deviation from those rules at this time,” Ward said in an email responding to questions from The Memphis News.

Jessica Buttermore, president of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, points to another interim period that is arguably more critical. It’s the amount of time it would take to raise money to build a parking garage once there is an agreement on where it should be and the price.

In that interim period how Memphians use the park will continue to change and evolve.

“Bicycling and walkability has become more of a desire for people. … It’s such a car culture and especially in Memphis,” Buttermore said. “I think you have to come at problems like this from many different angles … in the holding period where you are waiting to raise money for a garage.”

Wharton estimates it would cost around $5 million to build a 500-space garage and adds that the city of Memphis will not be funding such a project.

Zoo officials, at the height of the overflow parking controversy, put the price of a 600-space garage at more than double that, including moving some maintenance areas within the zoo’s footprint to put the garage on zoo property. And the zoo’s position was it would require funding from City Hall.

Buttermore said the focus is on looking at the shuttle’s performance through the end of June.

“Moving forward from the end of the trial to the end of the year, I’d like to see us reduce the amount of space they use on the greensward,” she said. “If the shuttles turn out that they show they are feasible then figuring out a way to continue that. … We do need to kind of all sit down and hash something out about what we will do going forward.”

The shuttles might be part of several moves toward the overall parking problem. But Sullivan also says the conservancy’s move toward new park entrances for those on bicycles and on foot reflects a new emerging reality.

“We’re already seeing a larger number of people entering the park by bike or on foot,” she said. “We encourage that. Our plan to improve those entrances is just moving us in the direction of the current trend. We’re just trying to make those entrances safer and more welcoming.”

Sullivan is encountering more Memphians on bicycles who are drawn to the park’s eastern border by the new bike gate where Sam Cooper Boulevard meets East Parkway.

“I had a conversation last week with a couple who said they’ve been to the park before but have never traveled the Old Forest Road,” she added. “They asked me how to get around. … We’ll see more of that.”

Next year, the conservancy begins work on the state-funded park entrance where North Cooper Street meets Poplar Avenue. And the conservancy has been quick to say that the path will work its way around any healthy trees.

“As we make improvements to the park more and more people are visiting and the zoo becomes more popular. Levitt Shell is obviously drawing more people to the park,” Sullivan added. “The improvements that are being made are attracting more people and so now we do need to prepare for that and adapt to that trend by making the park easier to access. We want to be very careful about carving out green space to make room for more cars at the expense of destroying that park-like experience.”

Note: Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News/The Memphis News, is a member of the board of the Overton Park Conservancy. He has not seen an advance copy of this story or other daily coverage of the park in The Daily News or participated in the editing of this story or other stories.

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