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VOL. 133 | NO. 76 | Monday, April 16, 2018

Link Between Overton Greensward and Zoo Defines Enduring Controversy

By Bill Dries

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It seemed like a good idea to the Powers-Hill Design firm as it was drawing up plans for a reconfigured Memphis Zoo parking lot to include a pedestrian walkway from the zoo plaza through the new parking lot to the Overton Park Greensward.

The link connecting the two would have been on the gravel driveway where cars coming to the zoo now enter the greensward and park on the grass when the zoo lot is full. It’s a 30-year practice that in the last four years has become a controversy that a second city administration is trying to solve.

The walkway was a bridge between two neighbors or a Kumbaya moment depending on who you talk to.

Either way, it didn’t make the final version of the city plan released Thursday, April 12.

It was one of several parts of the plan that got a rough reception earlier this year in public hearings.

Some critics at a February meeting at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum wanted to know if the walkway entrance to the greensward could be used by cars to continue parking on the greensward.


City chief operating officer Doug McGowen said no, cars could not.

That prompted questions about what would prevent cars from getting onto the greensward. McGowen said whatever measures were necessary.

“It would cost money to put something like that in and if it’s not going to be used and if people object to it, if there is no client for that, then we would be foolish to put money into that and particularly if it was inflammatory for certain individuals,” he said last week. “That was never the intent of the design team and it wasn’t requested by anybody. It was an amenity they thought would tie together the two.”

The city renderings and plans emphasize that where the gravel drive is now, there will be a three-foot-high berm so that those on the greensward won’t see cars at the zoo and vice versa. In addition to the berm, the parking lot there will be excavated to take cars to a lower level.

Construction on the plan is to begin in November and is expected to take about 18 months, with the zoo and park remaining open throughout construction.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Thursday once completed, it will “forever end greensward parking.”

“When I ran for mayor, I promised to end this once and for all, and that’s what this solution does,” he added. “This is a compromise, which means both sides had to give a little.”

The compromise includes an enhanced zoo entrance on North Parkway that had a trial run for 15 days last year. McGowen said the zoo will add further enhancements to the entrance starting in June.

The entrance is used primarily by patrons who will use on-street parking on North Parkway that has created more than 240 additional spaces in the last two years.

On-street parking on the north side of North Parkway by Snowden School, when school is not in session, will also be available for zoo patrons. Signage was recently added indicating that.

The Overton Park Conservancy, the zoo and the Overton Park Alliance – a coalition of some but not all groups concerned about and involved in the park – were briefed about the changes Thursday morning.

“Everybody’s passionate and that’s clear,” McGowen said of the reaction. “I think it’s fair to say everybody understands this is a compromise and they don’t get everything they wanted. … We’ve done our level best to make this work as best as we can.”

The conservancy, in a statement Thursday afternoon, said once the reconfigured parking area is completed, it will undertake remedial work on the greensward.

"We feel this loss deeply, while acknowledging that a permanent resolution to this issue required compromise from all parties," the written statement says, referring to the loss of 2.4 acres in the parking expansion. "What Overton Park gains in return is the permanent protection of approximately one-third of the greensward that’s been used for parking for decades – recreational space that is currently inaccessible to the public for more than 60 days every year."

After 30 years of the zoo using the greensward for overflow parking during the spring and fall peaks of attendance, several years of protest in the park, and several attempts at mediation across two city administrations, the Memphis City Council approved in July of 2016 a resolution to create 415 additional parking spaces in a reconfigured zoo parking lot.

The zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy each raised and put up $1.5 million of the $3 million to pay for the project. The terms changed some, including smaller dimensions of 9 feet by 19 feet for the parking spaces, when the zoo balked at putting up its $1.5 million half of the funding until the conservancy put up its $1.5 million share.

“It is certainly a compromise,” McGowen said. “But most good plans end up being a compromise of some variety. It delivers what the council directed in its resolution – 415 additional parking spaces inside the parking lot, another 200 on North Parkway. It addresses technology. It allows users to know where the parking is before they get there. And forever ends the parking of vehicles on the greensward.”

It may not forever end the controversy in some quarters at least for two more springs.

But McGowen hopes to move ahead with a still-developing Overton Park master plan that he hopes will get some consideration for adding more acreage to the total park than was lost in the parking compromise.

“The city is making a deliberate investment to move its general services out of the southeast area of Overton Park,” he said. “Our job now is to determine how best to use that 13 acres of new parkland that’s being added.”

The master plan will also address new uses for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Memphis College of Art buildings. The museum is to move to a new riverfront home in approximately five years. The college is in a wind-down to permanently close and will graduate its last class in 2020.

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

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