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VOL. 131 | NO. 24 | Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Packed Overton Park Traffic Town Hall Seeks View Beyond Greensward

By Bill Dries

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Architect and urban planner Steve Auterman stood before a standing-room-only crowd at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Tuesday, Feb. 2, and made the case for a broader vision of Overton Park.

A public hearing on Overton Park’s traffic and parking problems drew a standing room only crowd Tuesday, Feb. 2, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

To Auterman, of Looney Ricks Kiss, it’s a still-developing plan that’s larger than the volatile issue of the Memphis Zoo’s overflow parking on the greensward.

“We’re trying to maintain and continue the care and stewardship of the whole park and all of the users who use this space,” he said. “If you were here expecting that we are here to mediate or to try to resolve the dispute between the zoo and greensward, that’s not the whole picture. … We’re asked to look at that but also all of the other issues we’ve heard from all of the park users.”

But many in the audience of more than 200 were there precisely because of the controversy about to enter its third spring.

“This is an urban park. It’s not growing in the future,” he said at the outset of the public hearing, the latest stage of the Overton Park Conservancy’s traffic and parking study. “We have to start thinking about trade-offs. That’s the art of compromise.”

The conservancy coordinated the study, which is to be completed by the summer. The conservancy is one of several anchors that include the zoo as well as the Overton Park Golf Course, the Levitt Shell, the Memphis College of Art, the Brooks, a city fire station and maintenance yard and the Old Forest.

“All anchors are equal,” Auterman said of their input, which the conservancy began gathering in January.

Zoo officials did not attend the meeting and are not funding the study. But they are providing information to LRK, Alta Planning + Design and Kimley-Horn and Associates, the three planning and design firms working toward a park-wide plan.

Last week, zoo president and CEO Chuck Brady distanced his organizatoin from the study saying, “We believe our specific parking needs will not be addressed by their study.”

But he encouraged zoo members to participate in the online survey that provided a starting point of sorts along with the written comments and questions at Tuesday’s meeting.

Charles Flink of Alta, who is also working on the Wolf River Greenway, said such civic tensions over parking are a common part of the work his firm has done across the country.

“I’ve not seen it where a partner in the park has sort of permanently taken over. I would say it’s unusual,” he said of Overton Park. “Other conflicts have arisen over parking. … While it may not have been a green space it might have been something else. … It happens in this case to be a greensward which is very historic.”

From Thursday, Jan. 28, to Tuesday evening, 1,500 people participated in the online survey.

The survey found 70 percent of respondents said they visit the zoo and the shell when they come to the park while 55 percent said they come to the park for the greensward. But those taking the survey could give several answers to the question.

When asked to pick just one attraction in the park they visit most, the zoo was the overwhelming choice.

The most important concern to those taking the survey was a lack of parking – 60 percent – and 50 percent said the park should be able to accommodate more cars.

The online survey will remain up at overtonpark.org and another public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 18 at the Brooks at 6 p.m. That meeting is a design workshop that should present more detailed options.

Among the other items for possible future discussion, the consultants touched on a lack of complete sidewalks on the park’s Poplar Avenue and East Parkway borders as well as what Auterman described as “practically non-existent” easy and visible access to the park from Binghampton.

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

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