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VOL. 131 | NO. 259 | Thursday, December 29, 2016

Arrests, Metal Barriers, Lawsuits All Played Role in Greensward Parking Compromise

By Bill Dries

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Spring at City Hall is budget season and it can be stormy for a new mayor, not to mention a city council with six new members. But that wasn’t the case in 2016.

The real spring political storm was the Overton Park Greensward – specifically overflow parking from the Memphis Zoo on the greenspace south of the zoo.

“We didn’t know it was such an adamant topic,” council member Martavius Jones said. “As long as I’ve been familiar with Overton Park, I’d never heard that area referred to as the greensward. I saw the “Save the Greensward” signs and I thought, ‘Is there a building in Overton Park that they are threatening to tear down?’”

The zoo has parked cars on the lawn for several decades during the spring and fall when attendance peaks. It became an issue in the spring of 2014 when a group of high school students blocked the gravel driveway onto the greensward. Others, including some veterans of the successful 1970s movement to stop Interstate 40 from going through the park, quickly joined the protests.

The Overton Park Conservancy, created by the city in 2012 to operate and raise private money for the park’s maintenance, had also begun scheduling more activities on the lawn.

The protests through the springs of 2014 and 2015 grew and the zoo remained adamant that it had an agreement with the city for greensward parking.

2016 was the year metal barriers went up on the Overton Park Greensward, further separating the area used for overflow parking by the Memphis Zoo and park patrons who frequent the greensward. It set the stage for a compromise in the three-year-long controversy.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said in 2014 he favored moving to some arrangement that would get cars off the greensward by the end of 2014. On New Year’s Eve 2014, Wharton said zoo parking on the greensward would continue indefinitely.

Challenging Wharton in the 2015 race for mayor, Jim Strickland said he would push for a mediation of the dispute if elected, and impose a solution if one couldn’t be negotiated within the first six months of his tenure.

As the spring of 2016 approached, with Strickland as mayor, the zoo touted parking agreements it made with the city in the 1980s were affirmed in the 1990s, including maps showing the city had granted it control of the greensward, which it only wanted to use for overflow parking during peak periods.

The conservancy also had city maps and agreements showing the city, under Wharton, had granted it control of the greensward.

The zoo went to Chancery Court in January and the conservancy filed a counter-claim in the lawsuit – the question of who had control of the greensward was the central issue.

That’s when the council acted, voting March 1 to give the zoo control of most of the greensward. The item was added to the council’s agenda the same day it was approved, with only Jones voting against it.

Council chairman Kemp Conrad had succeeded in getting the zoo to the bargaining table, resulting in the boundary change that the council later approved as an ordinance as well as a resolution.

Conrad said later in the process that the council action “put (the zoo) in a better position to be able to negotiate.”

“I do think because of that we are a lot closer now – because of the action we took,” he added.

The zoo responded initially by expanding the area it was granted by the council for greensward parking by putting up temporary metal barriers to replace the orange cones that marked off the parking area. Even when the boundary was pulled back north of the Doughboy statue, the metal barriers were still used.

In the past, protesters had ventured past the cones to try to talk zoo patrons out of parking on the greensward. With the new barriers, protesters erected banners and lined up against them to sing and shout at zoo visitors, and also did yoga at the greensward line. Memphis Police also became more visible.

The busy 2016 spring included the centennial of the Brooks Museum of Art, the opening of the zoo’s new Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit and the Latino Memphis Festival on the greensward – all taking place on a single day, May 7.

Meanwhile, all sides in the lawsuit were meeting privately with mediators.

Veteran attorney David Wade and former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder, who had implemented a pilot mediation program before the court set formal rules for the process, were the mediators.

“It was a different sort of mediation,” Wade said later without talking about specific details of the confidential mediation. “It was something new in my experience, the way it was handled, because there were so many issues that popped up and you would have to deal with them from time to time. Quite often, we’d have conferences with people on the telephone.”

As the zoo and the conservancy talked, as well as the city administration and the council, which were also parties in the lawsuit, two protesters were arrested by Memphis Police on the greensward on Memorial Day.

The zoo and some council members linked the protests to the conservancy.

The conservancy has always denied any role in the protests over the last three years.

As the protests continued, a parking patrol on McLean Boulevard began directing cars to free on-street parking west of the zoo. Talk of constructing a multi-story parking garage also surfaced.

Opposers of greensward parking became small organizations whose efforts included the proliferation of “Save The Greensward” signs that could be seen on properties around Midtown and on some city buses.

By the June 30 mediation deadline imposed by Strickland, there had been an early agreement to create on-street parking on North Parkway.

The zoo claimed it wasn’t effective and didn’t resolve safety concerns. The conservancy’s position was that over time, North Parkway would be used more for parking.

Strickland, one day after the June 30 deadline, acted.

He recommended to the council that a new surface parking lot be created in the city General Services area on the southeast corner of Overton Park where buses could shuttle patrons to the Memphis Zoo.

He also proposed that a small part of the northern end of the Greensward be taken to create 100 parking spaces. That area is north of where protesters had planted trees on park land after the zoo removed the trees that were originally there.

Strickland had already had city crews create on-street parking on North Parkway between McLean and University Street.

Strickland’s proposal didn’t set a date for an end to parking on the greensward, but work on it was to start in early 2017.

Council member Bill Morrison began talking with both sides and the zoo pushed for an “eco-friendly” tram to run through the Old Forest, a state protected natural area the conservancy oversees under a contract with the state. The idea was always vehemently opposed by the conservancy.

The compromise the council eventually approved on July 19 did away with the new surface parking lot and shuttle system. Instead it called for a reconfiguration and expansion of the zoo’s existing parking lot to create 415 new parking spaces.

“If you go to the zoo, the zoo is going to say they need 600 spaces,” Morrison said. “They don’t need 600 spaces. This is about the number of spaces. I want to keep emphasizing that. It’s not about boundaries.”

The zoo parking expansion project is to be completed by January 2019 – the zoo and the conservancy were still negotiating at year’s end on the exact design of the parking lot.

“The basic consensus comes with the number of parking spaces, ending use of the greensward (by the zoo), protecting the trees and taking the Old Forest out of the conversation,” Morrison said.

Most but not all of the groups involved in the greensward protests backed the deal – Citizens to Preserve Overton Park being the notable hold out.

Conservancy director Tina Sullivan addressed the “mixed feelings.”

“Where some see a painfully long 2.5-year timeline, I’m seeing the end date of 30-plus years of greensward parking,” she said. “Where some see a loss of green space, I see protection of more green space than we’ve had in decades, plus reinforcement of our protection of the Old Forest, plus the acquisition of new green space in the southeast corner of the park. … I’m not naïve. More challenges lie ahead, but park supporters are more engaged, organized and motivated than ever.”

Daily News publisher Eric Barnes serves on the board of the Overton Park Conservancy. He was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.

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