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VOL. 131 | NO. 43 | Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Council Approves Zoo Control of Overton Greensward Section

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council members voted 11-1 Tuesday, March 1, to grant the Memphis Zoo control of the northern part of the Overton Park Greensward.

A large group of opponents of Tuesday’s council decision to give the Memphis Zoo control of the northern end of the Overton Park Greensward came to City Hall on a few hours' notice after the resolution surfaced during council committee sessions.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The control comes in a resolution that surfaced earlier in the day Tuesday after a weekend of rumors about such a move by some on the council.

Reports on the resolution and copies of it circulated rapidly and resulted in a large audience for the council session. Most opponents of the resolution are concerned about continued overflow parking by the zoo on the Greensward.

Nine of the 13 council members signed on as sponsors of the resolution that takes effect immediately.

The council heard from 36 speakers who opposed the resolution, not counting two representatives of the Overton Park Conservancy.

“The council does hereby ratify, affirm and approve in all respects the right and authority of the operators and patrons of the city’s zoo to use the portion of the greensward described, identified and/or show on Exhibit B for parking as and when needed on a priority basis to the exclusion of all other uses and without interference from any other person or entity,” the resolution reads.

It concludes the council has the “sole authority to acquire and dedicate lands for park purposes” under the city charter and to “govern the control, maintenance, management, conduct or operation by the city of any of the park.”

Council member Worth Morgan, whose district includes the park, drafted several amendments added to the resolution that prevent the removal by the zoo of shrubs and trees. It also protects the Greensward playground and Rainbow Lake.

View/download City Council resolution (PDF, 6.2 MB)

With those amendments, Morgan voted for the plan, saying he favored it because it effectively ends the Chancery Court lawsuit by the zoo seeking control of the northern part of the Greensward.

The zoo sued the city as well as the Overton Park Conservancy and the conservancy filed a counter claim. That was as the zoo and conservancy agreed to participate in mediation brokered by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

After the Tuesday vote, Strickland said he would have “preferred for mediation to solve all of the issues at play.”

He also supported the council’s claim that under the charter it has control over city-owned property, in a written statement.

“While this resolves the Greensward, we remain committed to the future and what’s best for all users of Overton Park, which has other parking and use issues,” Strickland said. “It remains in the best interest of the community that the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park Conservancy move forward with mediation to come up with plans for Overton Park for the benefit of all of our citizens.”

Conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan said she was uncertain how the resolution affects mediation.

“This seems like a short-sighted, hasty and poorly planned resolution,” she said after the vote. “I’m not quite sure it was so necessary today just as we are wrapping up our parking and traffic study and entering mediation. We’re going to keep moving forward.”

Sullivan huddled with attorneys representing the conservancy in the Chancery Court lawsuit and said she would next meet with the conservancy board.

Asked about the possibility of the conservancy going to court to dispute the council resolution she said, “I couldn’t rule it out without having that conversation with my board. I can’t really speak to that.”

Memphis Zoo President and CEO Chuck Brady said he appreciated the council action and said the zoo will continue to participate in the mediation process.

"We understand that parking on grass is not optimal," he said in a written statement. "And we are certainly open to exploring alternatives in the long-term as long as they are financially responsible, feasible and make sense for everyone involved -- including our visitors."

Council member Martavius Jones was the only no vote on the item. Jones sought to ask questions during the roll call and chairman Kemp Conrad ruled the vote was underway and would not be stopped for his question.

In other action, Tuesday, the council rejected a hotel with retail on the northeast corner of Jackson Avenue and Front Street, across from The Pyramid in the Pinch District, that was first proposed last year.

The development by Front Street Group moved ahead to a vote even after what looked like an agreement with the Greater Memphis Chamber and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital fell through.

The chamber and the hospital wanted the hotel to wait three more months on a master plan for development of the larger Pinch District coordinated with a coming expansion of St. Jude. The developers didn't want to wait.

The council vote was 4-7 with the item failing.

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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