Zoo Pulls Park Shuttle Funding, Conservancy Moves Up Shuttle Start

By Bill Dries

The Memphis Zoo pulled its funding Tuesday, May 20, for a trial zoo shuttle from the Overton Square parking garage. And the Overton Park Conservancy moved up the start of the shuttle service it will now fund on its own to start running two weeks earlier than planned.

The events Tuesday were the latest around a compromise that would end overflow zoo parking on the Overton Park greensward starting this weekend. The zoo retracted some comments in its Tuesday announcement but also signaled it is no longer a part of the compromise.

James Jalenak, the chief administrative officer of the zoo said Tuesday in the email that the compromise to end overflow zoo parking on the Overton Park greensward “will lead to the demise of the Zoo as we know it today” if it stands.

The statement was called “disrespectful and inappropriate,” by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

The shuttles are the first part of the compromise announced over the weekend to end the overflow parking on any part of the large lawn that runs between the Doughboy statue and Rainbow Lake in Overton Park.

But Jalenak’s email said the zoo “has no choice but to remove its sponsorship of the Overton Square Shuttle Services due to the misleading claims by the Overton Park Conservancy regarding the feasibility and capacity of the shuttle service."

The zoo contends it won’t carry the kind of capacity the conservancy claims and the zoo will lose visitors who are denied parking close to the zoo.

The shuttles start running Saturday, May 24, with stops at the zoo as well as the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Overton Park golf course clubhouse. The shuttles are to run every 10 to 15 minutes on Saturday and Sunday through June 22.

The Tuesday zoo letter also accused Wharton of deciding “to join the protestors’ mission” leading to “thousands of visitors” turned away from the zoo “and excluded from Overton Park, a trend that will worsen with time.”

Protests over the greensward parking began last month with several Central High School students who were quickly joined by a new group called “Get Off Our Lawn” which has been joined by Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, the group that filed the 1970s landmark lawsuit that stopped construction of Interstate 40 through Overton Park.

“If the Mayor and Overton Park Conservancy’s goal is to keep 80,000 citizens out of the park, they should be honest and state that rather than mislead the public with false solutions,” the zoo statement reads.

Zoo president Chuck Brady later apologized for the tone of the letter.

The second part of the compromise emerging without the zoo’s approval would use a city maintenance and vehicle lot near East Parkway and Poplar Avenue as a temporary parking lot as well, while funding is raised to build a parking garage on zoo property.

Wharton has estimated such a garage would cost $5 million and said that the city could not participate in funding it.

Brady, in a Saturday letter to zoo members, put the price at at least $12 million to $15 million and said city government funding would be needed for the project.

Jalenak wrote Tuesday that the garage has to have 600 spaces and that the city should also factor in the cost of relocating the zoo’s maintenance facilities to make room for a garage within the zoo’s current footprint.

Jalenak’s Monday letter says the walk from the lot at East Parkway and Poplar would be 1.2 miles. He instead advocates building a garage where the city maintenance and vehicle lot is now and running two “high capacity” zoo trams from there to the zoo on paved roadways that go through the Old Forest area.

The roadways have been closed to motor vehicle traffic for decades. And the forest is now an area protected by state government.

The city maintenance lot at East Parkway and Poplar is also being considered as the likely permanent site of a museum housing the works of famed Memphis photographer William Eggleston

“The mayor seems to have chosen to give away that part of the East Parkway compound to a new photography museum,” the Tuesday letter reads, “instead of accommodating visitors to the city’s existing number one attraction.”