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VOL. 131 | NO. 79 | Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Greensward Talks Getting Complex

By Bill Dries

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A week ago, the board of the Overton Park Conservancy had a visitor at its meeting – Richard Smith, the Memphis Zoo’s representative in the ongoing private mediation talks between the conservancy and the zoo.

There are indications that there is movement in resolving Overton Park’s Greensward controversy. The zoo’s representative in the mediation sessions attended a recent Overton Park Conservancy meeting.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“It was a good meeting,” said OPC executive director Tina Sullivan.

Smith came to talk about the park-wide traffic and parking study the conservancy commissioned and released earlier this month.

“The goals were simply to gain clarity around the recommendations and discuss which recommendations we could pursue enthusiastically and which ones needed further discussion,” Sullivan said of the April 11 meeting.

The zoo has said it can support some measures recommended in the study. On others, the zoo has offered what amounts to a counter offer.

“It was an exceptionally long meeting and we did not discuss alternatives that fell outside of that set of recommendations,” Sullivan said. “We haven’t had a chance to discuss the zoo’s alternate proposal. I suspect that we will discuss that in our next mediation session.”

Meanwhile, the study’s recommendation of a 300-space, $7.8 million parking deck on Prentiss Place, the road off McLean Boulevard leading to the zoo, remains an open question.

So does the zoo’s continued use of the Overton Park Greensward for overflow parking as the zoo prepares to open its new Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit at the end of April.

An alliance of some, but not all of the groups opposed to zoo parking on the Greensward has come out in favor of “temporary limited use” of the Greensward by the zoo.

The Friday, April 15, statement by the Overton Park Alliance said it accepts such use by the zoo “in exchange for the zoo’s commitment to address its parking needs and reduce Greensward parking as quickly as feasible.”

The alliance includes the Free Parking Brigade, Humans of Overton Park, Memphis Heritage, Stop Hurting Overton Park and surrounding neighborhood groups.

“We share the zoo’s concerns about the long distance from the current city general services maintenance area in the southeast portion of the park to the zoo entrance,” the statement adds. “We strongly oppose any use by the zoo of the current city maintenance area for additional parking, and of the state natural area roads closed decades ago within the Old Forest to transport zoo visitors through the park by any means including motorized trams.”

The zoo offered the idea of surface parking in the maintenance area in its response to the study. But it made no mention of the tram, which was an element of a 2014 zoo proposal that was ultimately rejected. Protests against parking on the Greensward have entered their third spring.

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park doesn’t agree with the alliance, making its position clear in a statement on the CPOP Facebook page: “We are very familiar with all of the players and issues, and we believe that active citizen protest is the only reason the Greensward is not yet paved,” the statement reads. “No more excuses, no more destruction of our public parkland, no more appeasement.”

CPOP’s latest goal, along with the group Get Off Our Lawn, is to raise $12,950 to spread the “Save the Greensward” brand to the back panels of Memphis Area Transit Authority buses and a set of 20 banners for homes and businesses.

The campaign comes after county code enforcement officers tried unsuccessfully to crack down on Greensward banners that went up in a residential area across Poplar Avenue from Overton Park’s southern border with courtesy citations.

The Evergreen Historic District Association is part of the alliance. The association also went to court earlier this month seeking to intervene in the first of two Chancery Court cases related to the controversy.

Chancellor Jim Newsom denied the motion to intervene. The February lawsuit filed by the zoo seeks a declaratory judgment giving it undisputed control of the Greensward.

The lawsuit was filed as the mediation process was announced and before the Memphis City Council’s March 1 vote approving a resolution granting the zoo control of two-thirds of the Greensward.

The OPC has since filed a counterclaim seeking a ruling that it has control of the Greensward.

The council action resulted in another Chancery Court lawsuit currently pending that alleges the council violated the state’s open meetings law. That suit seeks to void the resolution because of the alleged violation of state law.

“We have not ruled out the possibility of filing suit if the mediation is not successful,” said Gene Laurenzi, the attorney for the association and a member of the Evergreen group.

The possibility of a third lawsuit on the controversy came up during the April 8 hearing, which ended with Newsom’s ruling.

Attorney Allan Wade, representing the city of Memphis, which is a defendant in the lawsuit, acknowledged Evergreen could file a separate lawsuit.

“It’s going to disrupt a whole lot of things going on in the case if they intervene,” Wade added.

Laurenzi later acknowledged the behind-the-scenes moves – some just in the shadows, others deeper in the shadows as part of a mediation process in which all sides have agreed not to talk publicly about specific terms being discussed.

“Everybody’s kind of keeping their powder dry waiting to see how this turns out,” Laurenzi said. “I understand the legal part of it. I understand the passion part of it with the neighborhood. A lot of the groups are getting a little antsy.”

Newsom also acknowledged the controversy’s two sides at the April 8 hearing on the Evergreen motion – terming them “matters of interest and friction.”

“Overton Park is important to our community,” Newsom added, voicing his opinion that mediation is needed to get at a larger settlement beyond the borders of the legal disputes.

Daily News publisher Eric Barnes is a member of the Overton Park Conservancy board. He did not participate in the reporting or editing of this story.

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