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VOL. 9 | NO. 10 | Saturday, March 5, 2016

Green Sword

Overton Park Greensward controversy takes a new direction as spring approaches

By Bill Dries

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First it was a rumor – there would be a move by the Memphis City Council aimed at putting a quick end to the long-simmering Overton Park Greensward controversy.

It would come quickly and just before the start of the third spring of protests against the Memphis Zoo's use of the northern part of the Greensward for overflow parking.

Linley Schmidt sits with her "Save the Greensward" sign with other park supporters during an executive committee session at City Hall. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

And it would give control of that part of the Greensward to the zoo, making the zoo’s lawsuit in Chancery Court to do the same thing a moot point.

Like most rumors in politics, it was true.

The council resolution wasn’t made public until hours before an 11-1 council vote approving it Tuesday, March 1.

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

“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 shown 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.”

“This just clarifies who manages what,” Memphis Zoo president and CEO Chuck Brady said.

Apart from the specific declaration, the council’s rapid and somewhat stealthy move is the equivalent of a hairpin turn for the body as an institution. It marks the difference between the council that left office at the end of 2015 and the one that took office with six new members on New Year’s Day 2016.

The former council kept its distance, watching the previous two springs of protests and failed attempts by then-Mayor

A C Wharton to resolve the differences. And the council preferred the distance.

On the new council’s watch, the dispute moved into Chancery Court.

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

During his time as a city council member, Strickland – whose district had included Overton Park – took the position that it was up to the mayor to resolve the dispute and that the council should not interfere.

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

But he also supported the council’s claim that under the charter it has control over city-owned property.

“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 in a written statement. “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.”

The Memphis Zoo has been using the Overton Park Greensward for overflow parking for more than 20 years. Opposition to the practice has been growing for the last two springs as use of the park has grown. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The council resolution makes the body a new player in the controversy.

“We establish who can call everyone to the table,” councilman Frank Colvett said before Tuesday’s vote. “Once we do that, we can then get everybody at the table. It simply establishes the city council’s role.”

In that role, the body was greeted by a quickly mobilized group of several hundred angry Midtowners, many with “Save the Greensward” signs.

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

“Stop the hillbilly parking immediately,” urged protester Sherman Willmott. “You will not get re-elected if you are associated with this.”

Some reminded the council that Overton Park is where Interstate 40 was stopped by similar efforts.

To many, the existence of the Greensward without cars on it isn’t an intractable piece of a larger issue. It is the entire issue.

Councilman Worth Morgan, Strickland’s successor in the District 5 seat, drafted several amendments added to the resolution that prevent the zoo from removing shrubs and trees without council permission. It also protects the nearby playground and Rainbow Lake.

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

“The main reason for the lawsuit is these contracts are in conflict with one another,” said Morgan, who was not a sponsor of the resolution. “And that is honestly the city’s fault. I see this resolution as something that’s trying to clarify that issue. … We don’t want to spend the city’s resources, its funds, on a lawsuit that we have the ability to act on.”

Conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan was asked about the possibility of the organization going to court to dispute the council resolution. After huddling with attorneys, she said, “I couldn’t rule it out without having that conversation with my board. I can’t really speak to that.”

Sullivan said she was uncertain how the resolution affects mediation.

“This seems like a shortsighted, 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.”

Dozens of Memphians took to the podium during Tuesday's City Council session to voice their concerns over a resolution that would give control of the Overton Park Greensward to the Memphis Zoo. 

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Zoo president Brady said the zoo will continue to participate in the mediation process, and it intends to drop its Chancery Court lawsuit, contingent on the conservancy dropping its counterclaim.

Brady also said there will be no move to use “grasscrete” or “porous parking” surfaces on the Greensward. He said the zoo’s strategy is to use the Greensward for parking “as a last resort.”

"We understand that parking on grass is not optimal," Brady added. "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."

Brady has repeatedly cited the zoo’s own meticulous demographic information about who parks on the grass and who comes through the turnstiles. That includes ZIP code information as well as the zoo discounts offered that drive traffic on certain days.

“We have to understand Overton Park is a community park, and people that come from Frayser or Cordova or wherever – they can’t access the park unless that access is with a vehicle,” Brady said in January. “We have to have adequate parking, otherwise those people are going to be excluded.”

The zoo emphasizes that it uses the Greensward 65 days out of the year and that use, as well as zoo attendance, have remained consistent.

“Eleven of those days are at night and the parking’s free. They are coming to an event,” Brady said in February. “On 14 of those days it’s free Tuesdays. … Thirteen days are parents that are coming to enjoy the zoo with a child that is on an official zoo field trip.”

Former councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware, the aunt of council member Jamita Swearengen, spoke on behalf of zoo officials who did not attend the council session.

“This is not just a one-community issue,” Ware told the council. “This is much larger than one community or any one neighborhood. We need to make sure that whatever this world-class zoo needs it gets.”

And Ware countered those opposed to the resolution who talked about the park as a place where all Memphians can and do gather. Ware said she remembered a time when black citizens couldn’t visit the zoo, and then when they could, they were limited to one day a week.

“I want to thank you for mentioning that,” Ware told opponents of the measure.

Councilman Berlin Boyd cited violence, poverty and infant mortality statistics in his inner-city district. He also noted the large percentage of his constituents who visit the zoo on the weekly free day.

“To argue about who has the rights over the Greensward, I just can’t imagine this argument,” he said, suggesting the park expand onto the Overton Park Golf Course.

“Our corporate partners will throw money at areas that are influential,” Boyd added. “But areas like those in District 7 – Frayser, Nutbush, Douglass … we can’t find funds. But we can allocate $150,000 to the conservancy. The conservancy can raise just as much. It’s very interesting. Disenfranchisment is an issue and it’s an issue we have to be fair on.”

That rubbed some opponents the wrong way.

Many of them see the zoo and its backers as the privileged group with political connections.

The lay of the land in Overton Park – how the park is divided among the various institutions within it. The map is one of several exhibits in the City Council resolution approved Tuesday, March 1. 

(City of Memphis)

Dennis Lynch of the Sierra Club complained of “power brokers who are pushing the zoo.”

Gordon Alexander, founder of the Midtown Action Coalition, described the resolution as “a politically motivated effort by the Memphis Zoo to circumvent the process.”

And Mary Wilder, a longtime Midtown activist who ran for the District 5 seat, said the area’s residents opposed to the resolution are “not moving to Mississippi and you don’t see our tail lights.”

Council member Patrice Robinson, one of the sponsors, acknowledged there was little time for public review of the proposal.

“The public doesn’t know what we are voting on,” she said at one point before then, adding that the move was in the city’s best interest.

“I believe that as a city we need to move forward,” she said.

The controversy isn’t as simple as rich versus poor – privileged versus marginalized.

The zoo and the conservancy each have wealthy backers; some of them back both institutions and others in the park.

Such organizations – nonprofits that operate and maintain city or county government land using a mix of private and government funding – have a long history in Memphis. The zoo was the first to be turned over to such an entity.

And the zoo’s experience informed the creation of the Overton Park Conservancy and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy – although their missions differ.

Conservancy board chairman Ray Pohlman, government and community relations vice president of AutoZone Inc., noted that AutoZone is one of the city’s four Fortune 500 corporations.

“If this council is allowed to continue with this land-grab technique, you can be certain that corporate and private donors will have second thoughts about making investments in city-owned properties,” he said. “I sure hope you have a plan for that.”

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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