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VOL. 129 | NO. 100 | Thursday, May 22, 2014

Zoo Parking Controversy Continues to Accelerate

By Bill Dries

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When the Memphis Zoo pulled its funding of a free trial shuttle Tuesday, May 20, the Overton Park Conservancy moved up the start date two weeks from June 7 to this Saturday, May 24.

Free shuttle buses between the Overton Square parking garage and Overton Park begin Saturday, despite Memphis Zoo officials cutting their part of the shuttle funding.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

And the zoo move had the effect of moving up the end of overflow zoo parking on the Overton Park greensward by two weeks, as well.

The zoo retracted some comments in its Tuesday announcement later in the day, but also signaled it is no longer a part of the compromise. Zoo leaders stuck by their alternate plan that would run “high capacity” trams through the roadways of the Old Forest that haven’t seen motorized traffic for several decades.

James Jalenak, the zoo’s chief administrative officer, said Tuesday in the email that the shuttle 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. Wharton indicated he supported the compromise and an end to the overflow parking.

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 that the zoo will lose visitors who are denied parking close to the zoo.

The shuttles start this Saturday with stops at the zoo, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Overton Park golf course clubhouse. The free shuttles are to run every 10 to 15 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays 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 while funding is raised to build a garage on zoo property.

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

Brady, in a Saturday letter to zoo members, put the price between at least $12 million and $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 to house 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.”

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