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VOL. 133 | NO. 40 | Friday, February 23, 2018

Zoo Parking Plan Draws Questions, Skepticism

By Bill Dries

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The first audience for the Memphis Zoo parking plan Wednesday, Feb. 21, was tough. The crowd of more than 200 at the Memphis Pink Palace museum, many wearing green “Save The Greensward” T-shirts and some carrying banners with the slogan, expressed some skepticism that the zoo would abide by a ban on parking on the Overton Park Greensward once the new parking area is completed.

Some also wondered what would stop the zoo from using a 14-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle path from the zoo plaza to what is now the gravel drive onto the greensward for cars.

City chief operating officer Doug McGowen said the path could include features to block cars.

The new Memphis Zoo parking plan takes 2.4 acres of territory that wasn’t in the parking layout before to create 415 new parking places. (Powers Hill Design LLC)

“We will make sure the design addresses that,” he said.

The new Memphis Zoo parking lot is going to be late and will take in 2.4 more acres of land primarily on the eastern border of the greensward. But in the process, the parking will move further away from a first draft version of expanded parking that put cars right up against Veterans Plaza and the Doughboy statue in the park.

Powers Hill Design LLC unveiled a design plan Wednesday that creates 415 new parking spaces for the zoo in reconfigured parking lots. It also keeps the new areas for parking to the west of a natural ridge line and partially within the western area of the park controlled by the Overton Park Conservancy.

Though the reconfigured lot takes up an additional 2.4 acres, not all of that land is within the OPC boundaries.

“Whose is what is not something that we focused on. It was more ‘meet these requirements and stay on this (the west) side of the red line,’” said Nisha Powers, president of Powers Hill, referring to a line on a map that marks the ridge line natural boundary. “Anything else would have been taking sides.”

The design includes a three-lane perimeter drive that moves along the southern part of the parking lot and the western side of the lot that borders the greensward below the ridge. One lane is for buses to drop off and pick up passengers at the zoo plaza before parking on North Parkway. The plaza would also accommodate Uber and Lyft pickups and arrivals as well as handicapped parking.

One of the cards submitted at the public hearing read: “How long will it be before the zoo needs more parking?” And the question got a round of applause.

The expansion of Memphis Zoo parking in Overton Park will take a bit longer. The parking plan was supposed to end overflow parking on the park greensward by Jan. 1, 2019. Planners say the expanded parking area will take longer to complete. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

McGowen said he didn’t know but that the city is committed to no parking south of the new parking area or anywhere else in Overton Park once the new lot is completed.

McGowen also said the administration is developing a strategy for a functional public transportation system that ultimately would reduce cars in the park overall.

That comment also got a round of applause.

Asked about a parking garage, McGowen said a garage is too expensive and that in 30 years with a better public transportation system, it might not be needed.

Before the plan’s public debut, Powers said some reactions to the early drawings included a call to remove trees currently on and around the lot to keep it from going beyond its current borders. That would have meant a more noticeable and unnatural barrier between the zoo property and the greensward, Veterans Plaza and the park’s formal gardens.

“The screen wouldn’t be as natural as if we were doing a tree line all the way around the perimeter,” she said. “We were going to have to do a metal wall or something like that … because we just didn’t have the room for trees. It was that tight.”

The plan presented Wednesday isn’t without tough choices though, including taking down a 100-year-old oak tree near the southern border.

As part of the design, a survey of trees and their conditions showed 719 trees in the area and 390 impacted by the project. That includes 43 that would be preserved, 159 that would be removed and 188 that possibly could be relocated.

The design is the first part of a $3 million plan, including construction, paid for by the Memphis Zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy following a City Council-mediated settlement between the two to increase parking by 415 new spaces and end zoo overflow parking on the greensward by January 2019. The third condition was to preserve as many trees as possible.

The compromise followed several other attempts at an agreement between the two organizations and several years of spring and summer protests on the greensward.

The project, which involves planting new trees and replanting others, likely won’t be completed by January. The overflow parking on the greensward, however, usually comes into play later in the year – particularly during the spring and summer peak seasons for the zoo and the park.

Other changes from an earlier draft drop the idea of a single one-way lane into the zoo from the south and abandon a plan to close Prentiss Place, the east-west road into the zoo off McLean Boulevard.

With the presentation of the plan, Powers Hill and the city will take public comments and other input through the end of this month. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is expected to make a decision on the plan sometime in March, with construction to follow.

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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