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VOL. 129 | NO. 96 | Friday, May 16, 2014

Land Grab

Overton Park greensward usage conflict sparks call for garage

By Bill Dries

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It’s been implied, but an agreement on the general idea of building a Memphis Zoo parking garage was put in writing this week by the Overton Park Conservancy as protests over paid zoo parking on the park’s greensward are likely to continue.

“It’s not an ideal arrangement,” the Tuesday, May 13, posting on the conservancy’s website reads. “That’s why, together with the Zoo and our other park partners, Overton Park Conservancy believes that the best solution is to add an additional zoo entrance … and build a parking deck on zoo property. … A new garage, though more expensive than surface parking, will have the lowest impact on the park’s green space.”

Word of the consensus comes as the park and the zoo approach the busiest time of the year, including the conservancy’s second annual Day of Merriment on the greensward.

Catlin Kelly flies a kite in the greensward in Overton Park. The greenspace is part of the controversy over a need for additional parking at the Memphis Zoo. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Our goal is to bring as many people to the park from across our diverse city’s population as possible, so we do hope to maximize that space,” Overton Park Conservancy Director Tina Sullivan said of the event for which the zoo last year agreed to use shuttle service for its patrons.

The June 7 event occurs the same day the conservancy begins a daytime shuttle service between the park and the Overton Square parking garage. The shuttle is a pilot project partially funded by the zoo for June.

A consultant’s study of parking in general in Overton Park is nearing completion, and it recommends a garage on zoo property. For now the study will focus on zoo parking.

“We felt it would be prudent to wait until after we have addressed the zoo visitor parking before we start looking at what kind of congestion remains as a result of the park improvements and park visitors,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want to carve out park greenspace to add new parking spaces if really all we are serving are zoo visitors. We think zoo visitors can find a more accessible location for their parking.”

Memphis Zoo officials could not be reached for comment.

Naomi Van Tol of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park said the agreement and consensus to move toward a parking garage is an important step. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park is the group that filed the landmark lawsuit in the 1970s that stopped federal government plans to route Interstate 40 through the park.

For several Saturdays, the group has challenged the orange cones and yellow tape the zoo puts up on the northern end of the greensward for paid parking – last week under threat of arrest by Memphis Police.

“This Saturday, we are going to get on their lawn,” Van Tol said. “We’re going to encourage people to go use the park for what it should be used for. … We plan to keep it up.”

The challenge began when a group of Central High School students organized a sit-in. The zoo called police, who didn’t take any action, saying they needed a written agreement showing cars could be parked on the grass.

The next weekend, with a “Get Off Our Lawn” Facebook page fueling the effort, more people showed up, and zoo officials called the police. This time the police had a memo from city Parks Director Janet Hooks saying the zoo has an agreement with the city to use the area for overflow parking. Some of the protestors complained that the grassy area was roped off for parking as a nearby zoo parking lot sat empty.

“The zoo parked all of their people on the grass, leaving their surface lot empty. We feel like that was just to make a statement that they had the right to do it,” Van Tol said.

This week, attorney Lawrence J. Smith issued his own legal opinion for Citizens to Preserve Overton Park that said the agreement between the zoo and the city is verbal only and conflicts with the 2012 agreement between the city and the conservancy for the conservancy to have “exclusive control of 184 acres” of the park. He said Hooks’ memo in which the city commits to honor the verbal agreement for overflow parking “is a legal impossibility.”

“There is no evidence that this greensward land grant ever occurred prior to the May 9 email,” he said of Hooks’ email.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Evergreen Historic District Association in a Wednesday letter to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. called on the city to specifically prohibit zoo parking on the greensward.

“EHDA also realizes that, at least in the short term, ending the practice of parking on the Greensward will create more auto traffic in our neighborhood,” reads the letter from association President Rob Clark.

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