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VOL. 132 | NO. 59 | Thursday, March 23, 2017

Greensward Compromise Text, Discussion Differ on Cost Split

By Bill Dries

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At the end of a surprising day at City Hall, Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan was anticipating what might happen in the three weeks until the next council session to the compromise for zoo parking in Overton Park.

The Memphis City Council’s approval of a compromise on zoo parking and the Overton Park Greensward in July may have cooled the controversy for a time. But the terms of the compromise are being questioned.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“Who knows what we’ll face in the next three weeks,” he said of the compromise agreed to in July by the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park Conservancy and approved by the council.

The council district Morgan represents includes Overton Park.

In committee sessions Tuesday, March 21, the zoo and OPC were to walk the council through what is usually a routine review of a grant or donation of funding for a specific purpose.

In this case it was $500,000 split 50-50 between the zoo and OPC to pay for the engineering and design of a reconfiguration and expansion of zoo parking. This would add 415 parking spaces in the zoo parking area, including a berm, taking in some of the western and northern borders of the Overton Park Greensward.

But zoo president Chuck Brady balked at putting up the zoo’s $250,000, saying the OPC was refusing to go 50-50 on the construction costs for the estimated $3 million project after the design phase is completed this fall.

Conservancy board chairman Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, denied the conservancy had refused to put up a share of the cost, as did conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan.

Later the conservancy said in a statement posted on Facebook that it is committed to raising $1.5 million, with the conservancy and the zoo each paying half of the costs of the construction phase, “with that investment to be offset using revenue generated by the parking fees.”

The council is to vote on the donation of the design money from both sides at its April 11 meeting, with the idea that there will likely be some negotiations before that vote to get the compromise back on track.

“I think there was a lot of noise in committee, but ultimately everything proceeded as it should,” Morgan said. “What happens after that I can’t say.”

The text of the compromise – and the council’s discussion of it – were distributed to council members.

In mid-February, according to emails obtained by The Daily News, zoo board chairman Gene Holcomb wrote that the zoo’s commitment under the compromise is “paying 50 percent of the cost to implement, concurrent with OPC or others also simultaneously paying 50 percent.”

Barnes, in an email reply, wrote, “There’s been a misunderstanding of what our share should be.” He added that OPC “is and always has been committed to raising funds for the parking plan.”

With city chief operating officer Doug McGowen mediating and offering a suggestion of a zoo parking fee increase to bridge any funding gap between the two entities, there were talks of meetings to work out a solution.

“I think this meeting and future meetings are intended to define what ‘share’ means,” Barnes wrote.

“It is the zoo’s strong opinion that the meaning of ‘shared’ in the resolution that both the zoo and OPC openly accepted was understood by both parties at the council meeting,” Holcomb replied, adding that the original compromise would have had the zoo, OPC and the city each paying a third of the cost until city leaders began objecting to the city putting up any money.

“And the zoo and OPC then agreed to a 50 percent each split,” Holcomb wrote. “There was no misunderstanding at that time. This was the basis of the zoo’s acceptance.”

The compromise resolution that the zoo and OPC agreed to, and which the council approved at its July 19 meeting, has no percentages in its text.

A single line in Exhibit A of the resolution reads: “The Memphis Zoological Society and Overton Park Conservancy are expected to share in the cost of implementing this parking plan.”

Council member Bill Morrison, who mediated the agreement and sponsored the resolution, read the line aloud during the council’s executive committee discussion the day it was voted on.

While the council did amend the agreement just before the vote to specify 10 feet-by-20 feet parking spaces and 22-foot wide driveways, there was no amendment of the written language on cost sharing.

There was also an amendment suggested by council attorney Allan Wade that made clearer that the zoo would continue to use the greensward for overflow parking until its parking lot was reconfigured and expanded.

But Brady, in his comments to the council in July, minutes after Morrison had outlined the provisions, referred to a 50-50 split in funding. Brady estimated the project would cost approximately $3 million total and then told the council, “That will be $1.5 million for the zoo and $1.5 million for the OPC.”

No one in the room corrected the statement.

Council member Berlin Boyd followed up on that specific point saying, “If OPC goes away, basically it would be a $1.5 million cost for the city.”

Morrison said the specific goals of the agreement were to end greensward parking, save as many trees as possible, create a set number of new parking spaces and keep any traffic out of the park’s Old Forest.

“If we get into the weeds, compromises fall apart,” he said. “What are the things we can put on paper that we agree to.”

At another point in the discussion, he acknowledged there could be disputes even with the agreement.

“A year or so from now we’ll probably have to deal with it,” Morrison said.

Less than a year later, Morgan is focused on getting the design work underway.

“Both sides are ready to cut the check. But it seems like there are some trust issues about the next time they have to cut the check for the full construction costs,” he said. “That’s never been the expectation that both organizations were going to have to have the entirety of the money up front.”

Beyond that, Morgan said the agreement should carry the day.

“I’m not in favor of changing the goal posts for anything other than exactly what the debate was, exactly what the resolution said, which is there will be a split cost and the money will be asked for as the project goes along,” he said.

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

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