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VOL. 132 | NO. 74 | Thursday, April 13, 2017

Money Behind New Zoo Parking Terms

By Bill Dries

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In the third attempt to bring an end to the Overton Park Greensward controversy last summer, Memphis City Council member Bill Morrison decided it was best not to try to reach agreement on all points, but on most points.

The plan to end zoo overflow parking on the Overton Park Greensward took another turn Tuesday, April 11, with a new compromise calling for a June deadline to raise $3.3 million for a new expanded zoo parking lot and smaller parking spaces on the new lot.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The goal was to come up with a plan that would make talks on the sticking points possible later.

It looked like that strategy had worked, as trained legal mediators and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland had not been able to get the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park Conservancy together.

Nine months later, the council re-opened the compromise Tuesday, April 11, to settle the key points that weren’t settled last summer.

That was after the zoo refused to turn over its half of $500,000 raised for design work on the zoo’s reconfigured and expanded parking lot. It also won’t use some of its parking revenue stream to pay the total cost of design and construction.

Zoo president Chuck Brady told the council Tuesday that the zoo has raised $1.75 million – its share of the total estimated project cost, design and construction.

“It was always assumed that the Overton Park Conservancy would do the same and it didn’t,” Brady said. “We expect the compromise project to go forward as it was designed in the council resolution. Not any changes in financing. Not any changes in scope.”

OPC board chairman Eric Barnes, who is also publisher of The Daily News, said the July agreement didn’t set percentages of how much the zoo and OPC would contribute to the cost of the project. It’s an interpretation some council members shared Tuesday, including Worth Morgan, who said if there was a new requirement to put up all of the funding sooner, he also wanted to change the size of the parking spaces.

“We had hoped there would be revenue funding. We understand that’s off the table,” Barnes told council members Tuesday. “We understand what we’re doing is raising money for 50 percent of the construction. … We are fundraising now.”

The compromise worked out hours later by council member Reid Hedgepeth sets mid-June as the time when the total amount for design and construction of the parking lot with 415 more parking spaces is due from the zoo and OPC – either in cash or in pledges or other commitments from donors. 

That compromise reversed the requirement made in July that the size of parking spaces would be 10 feet by 20 feet. The parking spaces will now be 9 feet by 19 feet.

“I didn’t specify because quite honestly I didn’t think the money was a problem,” Hedgepeth said of the general terms in July about what the cost shares would be and when they would be due. “I thought they already had the money in place – both sides.”

He and Morgan said the July compromise also failed to predict the enduring mistrust between the OPC and the zoo.

Overton Park is again at its spring peak of park visitors and zoo patrons. The zoo drew large crowds this past weekend, and put overflow parking on the greensward, as zoo patrons came to see the zoo’s new baby hippo, which went on public display Saturday. The zoo parking patrol of volunteers offered free parking in the neighborhood west of the park until all of the on-street parking in the neighborhood was used.

Council member Kemp Conrad questioned Barnes closely Tuesday about the new terms for the parking lot.

“It’s not a skyscraper. It’s a parking lot,” he said at one point, adding some misgivings that “this is never going to end.”

“It’s irresponsible not to have the costs and plans to raise the funding,” Barnes told the council. “That’s not a good way to raise money.”

But he also acknowledged that the smaller parking spaces would make fundraising easier for the conservancy, and ultimately agreed to move ahead with the compromise. Brady also accepted the new terms.

The zoo wanted the larger parking spaces and refused to entertain any change to them earlier this year. Parking spaces measuring 10 feet by 20 feet would have taken up an extra acre of greensward space in a plan whose ultimate goal is to end decades of zoo overflow parking on the greensward by 2019.

The smaller parking spaces will still mean some encroachment on the western and northern borders of the greensward, with a berm and trees separating the newly defined greenspace from the new parking lot.

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

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