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VOL. 129 | NO. 98 | Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Overton Park Compromise Takes Shape

By Bill Dries

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The Overton Park parking plan isn’t a compromise just yet. There are still details to be worked out and a big difference in the price estimate of a Memphis Zoo parking garage.

A compromise on handling overflow parking from the Memphis Zoo is taking shape that would take the cars off the Overton Park greensward and instead ferry some zoo patrons to the park from the Overton Square parking garage. But there are still some issues to be worked out.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s plan is to have some kind of agreement in place by the time shuttle service between the park and the Overton Square parking garage begins its month-long trial June 7.

The shuttle is one of two options Wharton is exploring for zoo parking that would end overflow parking on the Overton Park greensward by the first week in June.

A memo from Wharton dated Saturday, May 17, obtained by The Daily News says the city agrees that the overflow parking on the lawn “is not the highest and best use of the space.”

“And while the city is not in a position to participate financially,” he continues, “we will do whatever we can to support the efforts of the Zoo and Overton Park Conservancy in their quest for short and long term solutions.”

The options Wharton says the city supports include the trial shuttle service between the zoo and the Overton Square parking garage. The free service is funded by the conservancy and the zoo.

“The Greensward space will not be used for overflow parking during the five-week shuttle trial period,” Wharton wrote in his memo, which followed a Friday meeting of all parties involved in the issue.

The second option is to establish free temporary parking at what is now a parking and maintenance space for city government vehicles at East Parkway and Poplar Avenue. Wharton wrote that zoo patrons would park there for free and enter the zoo through the Teton Trek exhibit.

“As soon as the site has been prepared and plans for staffing are in place, we will let the public know of the availability of parking at 281 E. Parkway,” the memo says.

Wharton also pledged that City Hall could “facilitate the review and development” of a four-level, 400-space parking garage as a permanent solution, although “the city is not in a position to fund this project.”

The memo does not specify whether such a garage would be on zoo property or park property.

Get Off Our Lawn, the group that has spearheaded protests on recent weekends in the overflow parking area on the greensward, has said any garage should be built on zoo property.

Wharton’s memo signals a change in city policy that instructed police to arrest anyone trying to use the greensward area assigned for the overflow for anything other than parking.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The earlier May memo from Parks and Neighborhoods Division Director Janet Hooks cites a previous verbal agreement between the city and the zoo for the overflow parking usage. But the protestors, as well as Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, have argued the agreement isn’t valid because it was never put into writing and any verbal agreement predates the city’s contract with the Overton Park Conservancy to maintain and operate Overton Park, including the greensward.

Meanwhile, a Saturday email sent by Memphis Zoo President Chuck Brady to zoo members after Wharton’s memo indicates the protests have had an impact.

“To date in 2014, these organized protests against the Zoo have caused more than 13,000 visitors to be turned away,” Brady wrote. “When visitors are turned away, they are forced to park in a farther, less secure location. Many will decide not to visit at all.”

Wharton puts the cost of the parking garage at $5 million, a figure used in the past when the garage has been discussed publicly.

But Brady puts the cost at a “minimum $12 to $15 million, for which the Zoo will raise our fair share and the rest would be paid for by the city.”

Wharton has said city government will not be able to fund the garage. And approval of such funding by the Memphis City Council is doubtful given the council’s previous decision to fund construction of the Overton Square parking garage, which doubles as a flood control retention basin and has not been as widely used for parking as originally estimated. Some businesses in the Cooper-Young district have also called for a parking garage there.

In the email to zoo members, Brady said overflow parking on the greensward has been done for two decades, only uses half of the space and “is perfectly legal.”

In the last two years, the zoo has used the greensward for approximately two months of the year, according to Brady. He estimated that in 2013, 80,000 visitors to the zoo parked on the greensward, based on an average of four people per vehicle.

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