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VOL. 131 | NO. 131 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Strickland Unveils Greensward Solution, Zoo Not Happy

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has put forth his plan to end parking on the Overton Park Greensward.

The central feature of the solution Strickland announced Friday, July 1, is building a new surface parking lot in the city General Services area on the southeast corner of Overton Park and running buses from there to the Memphis Zoo without shuttling them through the Old Forest area.

(City of Memphis)

Strickland will take his plan to the Memphis City Council for ratification at its Tuesday, July 5, session, but council chairman Kemp Conrad said he will seek to delay the vote until July 19.

Conrad said he backs Strickland's plan.

Zoo overflow parking on the Overton Park Greensward would continue until the solutions are put in place, with work on them to start in early 2017.

And a small part of the northern end of the Greensward would be taken to create 100 parking spaces north of the plot of land where zoo parking protesters had planted trees on park land earlier this year after the zoo removed the trees that were originally there.

Strickland acted after mediation between the zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy failed to produce a comprehensive agreement by the Thursday deadline set by the city.

Zoo and conservancy leaders involved in the negotiations each endorsed Strickland’s plan Friday.

But Memphis Zoo president and CEO Chuck Brady termed the plan “disappointing for a number of reasons” and “a great disservice to the Memphis Zoo.”

Here are the elements of the plan as announced by Strickland Friday afternoon.

• Reconfiguring the zoo’s existing lots (main and Prentiss Place) for a net gain of approximately 200 spots.
• Adding approximately 100 spaces by constructing permanent parking on the southeast side of the zoo’s main lot, where a tree-lined swale exists to separate it from the grassy, usable Greensward area. A berm will be constructed to obscure the view of cars from the Greensward, and new trees will be planted to replace ones lost. The berm solution was proposed in this year’s parking study and is supported by the Overton Park Conservancy.
• Utilizing approximately 200 spaces on North Parkway, which will be activated by a new entrance on the north side of the zoo. The North Parkway parking will include a designated waiting area for buses, thus freeing up spaces in the Prentiss Place lot.
• Building a new lot on the General Services area on the southeast corner of the park that will provide hundreds of spaces. It will be serviced by buses that will run on peak days and will transport guests to the new zoo entrance via public roadways outside the park. It will also provide parking for all other park entities, especially the park’s East Parkway-facing facilities and the Old Forest. General Services’ departure from that area allows the opportunity not only to add parking, but also for additional amenities and greenspace to be added to the park.
• Adapting a technology solution to aid with the efficient loading and use of all existing parking space.
• The mayor’s proposal calls for the zoo and OPC to share the costs of implementing this plan.

Strickland said, in a written statement, that there was “no easy solution to this complicated issue.”

“The proposal I am putting forth is the best possible result, given the constraints with which we are dealing,” he wrote.

The constraints that Strickland said guided his actions offered some insights into the barriers that may have brought the mediation to an end without a compromise by the zoo and the conservancy.

Those factors included a parking garage at an estimated cost of $14 million that Strickland was unwilling to put ahead of public safety and infrastructure needs the city has.

He also said citizens he talked with were not confident private money could be raised for such a garage.

The other factors included a vote by the Evergreen Historic District Association in the area bordering the zoo and the park to oppose any use of Galloway Avenue as a solution, as well as public opposition to both more parking on the Greensward and any kind of shuttles that would run through the Old Forest area.

The state of Tennessee also told Strickland that because the forest is a state natural area, any motorized shuttle system could not run through the forest.

Brady’s statement faulted the proposal because “it fails to account for the need to transport visitors between the lot and the zoo safely, easily and efficiently.”

“All the costs in the mayor’s new proposal fall to the Memphis Zoo, as Overton Park Conservancy will not be able to fund any of the costs associated with the creation of extra parking and ongoing transportation for use by not only zoo guests, but also general parkgoers,” Brady wrote.

Brady also signaled that the zoo will be working between now and the expected council vote on July 19 to change the terms of Strickland’s proposal.

The Facebook page of the group Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, the park group that filed the historic federal court case that stopped the interstate from coming through Overton Park in the 1970s, included a post Friday evening reading: ‘While this plan is not perfect, it is a big step forward.”

The statement called for a “much tighter timeline” and more details about the new parking spaces on the northern border of the Greensward.

“But otherwise we smell a future victory for the People’s Park,” the post read.

OPC executive director Tina Sullivan termed Strickland’s proposal “a solution for the entire park.”

“We’ve lived with cars encroaching on park activities for decades,” she said in a written statement. “And this plan will physically and visually separate parking from park users.”

On the specific northern area of the Greensward that is to be converted to parking behind a berm, Sullivan described the area as “a small swath of land that’s below the grade of the remainder of the Greensward and currently dominated by a drainage ditch.”

“For the first time in decades, people enjoying the Greensward won’t even be able to see the zoo parking lot,” she added. “They’ll just see a park, as George Kessler originally intended.”

FedEx executive Richard Smith, who was the zoo’s representative in the mediation process said he “didn’t envy the mayor on this day.”

“He’s having to step up and make a call on behalf of the citizens of Memphis, who own both amenities, and is trying to balance the interests of all constituencies in maintaining access to valuable city resources,” Smith said in a written statement.

Smith said his own role in the controversy put him in the middle between some who accused him of “’selling out’ or ‘ruining’ the zoo” and those who said he was “destroying” the park.

Council member Worth Morgan, whose district includes the park and who was also involved in the mediation, said he supports Strickland’s proposal.

“There is no perfect or complete solution, and every option has its opportunity, costs and drawbacks,” he added.

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