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Finding a Compromise on the Greensward Issue

-- Richard W. Smith

The current debate over the Memphis Zoo’s use of the Greensward for overflow parking is more complex than most realize. Opponents of this usage try to paint a very compelling picture of the Zoo as a massive, profit-driven enterprise which came into Overton Park like an invasive species and has recklessly expanded, gobbling up park land and taking it away from the citizens. In reality, the Memphis Zoological Society (MZS) is a non-profit which manages a city owned asset, the Memphis Zoo. This is very similar to the Overton Park Conservancy (OPC), another non-profit managing a city owned asset, Overton Park. Both of these institutions, the Park and the Zoo, date back over a hundred years and have coexisted for all but a handful of them (with the Park predating the Zoo’s founding there in 1906 by about five years). Some eighty years after being established, in 1986, the decision was made by the City of Memphis to pursue a course that would develop its zoo into a world class amenity, and a master plan was created to support that goal. Initially the Zoo’s parking lot was to have 1250 spaces instead of the 650 it has today, but because that level of demand did not exist at the time and to accommodate midtown neighbors, they left an additional 600 spaces in the existing Greensward and decided that the Zoo could just use it for overflow parking as and when needed. This was the compromise that was ultimately reached in the late 80s, and which has since served to balance the interests of Park and Zoo patrons alike. 

As time went on, the MZS was tremendously successful in achieving its goal and the City’s of making our zoo a top attraction, with a lot of private and public funding raised towards this end and in reliance on that overflow parking area to accommodate demand and the agreements from the City which granted the Zoo management control of it. Today the Memphis Zoo is the top tourist attraction in Shelby County by visitation, and sixth in the entire state. It generates a lot of economic activity for a city that, quite frankly, desperately needs it, and is widely beloved and enjoyed by our citizens. As a result, the Zoo has been parking in the northern part of the Greensward for almost three decades on days when attendance is heavy, so the sight of cars on the grass is not a particularly new phenomenon. I will also point out that these vehicles that park there are not autonomous “zombie cars” which drive themselves onto the property. They are in fact full of families, mostly your fellow Memphis citizens, who are visiting their local zoo. In fact, of the 1.2 million visitors who will go to the Zoo this year, only about 30% will be tourists from outside of the area (according to a University of Memphis study conducted on the Zoo’s economic impact). So the notion that the City is prioritizing the interests of tourists over that of its citizens is as false as the narrative about the Zoo as a greedy, imperialist power that resides in the Park. 

It’s important to understand that as time marched on and the Zoo flourished, the continued parking on the grass was not the ideal MZS solution to accommodate growth; rather it was the City’s. The City of Memphis owns both park and zoo at the end of the day, and when questions were raised by donors about the expansions and adequate parking, previous administrations pointed to the Greensward and the Zoo’s management control over the northern part as the answer. This is not speculation on my part, but something that I have actual firsthand knowledge of. I do not share it in an effort to shift blame from the Memphis Zoo to the City, however, but instead to illustrate how futile the finger pointing exercise really is. As recently as 2015, Mayor A.C. Wharton’s administration reaffirmed the Zoo’s use of the Greensward for parking until 2019. Wharton also said that George Little (City CAO at the time) would head up a committee to work with stakeholders in order to come up with an alternative plan that would include funding options and strategies. No such committee ever got off the ground, and thus no alternative solutions were pursued. This is because the answer is not as easy as simply “kicking the Zoo off of the Greensward,” as it involves prior agreements over land use and the balancing of interests of all taxpayers, many of whom use the Park and many more of whom use the Zoo and should not be denied convenient access. In that respect, when talking about market demand, the Zoo truly is the 800 pound gorilla in the Park. 

 Having said all that, the balance of interests is shifting, and it is shifting for a couple of reasons. One, as pointed out, is simply that the MZS was successful in doing what was asked. Our Zoo is consistently ranked one of the top in the country, and as such the number of days where demand is heavy and Greensward parking must be utilized have increased. Those tend to be nice days when families want to be outside, which coincide with the Park users also wanting to use the grass for various activities with their families. In addition, the OPC has done a fine job in recent years of improving the Park and making it more attractive and usable, which has further increased the demand across the board. From the Brooks Museum to the Levitt Shell to the Old Forest, Overton Park itself is seeing a lot of interest from a lot more people. Secondly, people are waking up to how important parks and green spaces are to the broader metropolitan ecosystem all across the planet, particularly as urbanization continues at a rapid pace. Once consumed for other uses, these lands are very difficult to get back, if not impossible. They are important quality of life amenities that have a great economic value as well, in that they encourage in migration which increases the tax base and also help to retain existing residents. Thus it is important to find the right balance here for all of the citizenry and the City as a whole in light of these trends. 

To strike that balance, another compromise must be found, and in a good compromise all parties share a little bit of pain and do not get everything they want. That’s just the nature of the beast. In 2012, the creation of the OPC’s contract with the City of Memphis put the management control of and priority usage rights to the Greensward into dispute. The OPC asserts that their agreement makes them the manager over all of Overton Park, but the MZS contests that the part of the Greensward area which they had been granted control of (about half) in their 1994 Operating Agreement with the City is clearly excluded from the scope of the OPC contract and that document does not supersede their rights. Even with the recent lawsuits filed by both parties and the subsequent City Council resolution affirming the Zoo’s priority use of the area, a land use issue which is within their purview, the OPC has never publicly pushed for the Zoo to stop parking on the grass immediately. This demonstrates that they reasonably understand the need for it until another solution can be found. At this stage, though, it is clear that we’ve reached a point where both parties agree that this is a high quality problem driven by growth and success, and that alternative solutions must now be developed for the future. That’s the good news, and even further good news is that mediation continues to move forward with the focus turning towards said alternatives. 

 Just recently, the OPC released their parking study to the public. There are some great ideas and suggestions in there, and a number that are viable that the Zoo supports implementing in the near term. Other recommendations, however, are less tangible at this juncture and will be difficult to find funding for, such as an expensive parking structure. Those are certainly not off the table, but public or private funding for such a project will be very hard to come by, particularly in this tough budget year from a taxpayer funding standpoint. There are other, less costly options which many of the protest groups would like to take off the table, and those involve some of the underutilized areas in the park like the golf course and the general service area that the City currently uses for maintenance.  

 In listening to and reading online the demands of many of the protest factions, it seems that they want the Zoo to stick to its current footprint, excluding the portion of the Greensward they had in their original master plan and which they have been granted control and priority usage of today by both the City Council and their prior agreement. They also say that the Overton Golf Course, the 4th least utilized in the City (with fewer rounds played than all but Crockett, Pine Hill and Riverside), is completely off limits in terms of looking to reconfigure it in any way that might help to solve this problem. Furthermore, the 16-acre general service area also cannot play a part in the solution because the Park wants it for the William Eggleston museum, another attraction which is more palatable to them than the Zoo and apparently in their eyes a better use of the land than free parking and additional green space. Finally, even if they were amenable to using such a space for parking further away, this presents a problem too. Because they hold firmly to the position that no trams or even golf carts can be used on the paved roads within the Park to shuttle people to the Zoo, with no exceptions even for the elderly or handicapped. So, as you can see, it is quite the conundrum if the OPC, which is involved in the current dispute, were to adopt all of the positions of the various protest groups. 

All of that is not to say that a solution cannot be found, however. This is a veritable Rubik’s Cube; but, like that infuriating puzzle, it is not impossible to solve. It just means that the parties, including the Memphis Zoo, must consider their demands and requirements and figure out which of those they could compromise on and which they cannot. If the answer is that they can bend on none of them, I’m afraid we’re all in for a lot of frustration and heartache in this mediation process. As it resumes, any discussion in there of alternatives will be bound by confidentiality, but I am optimistic that the process can work if we stop digging in our heels and work together for the good of the entire community and not just our own interests. 

Posted by Zoo Info at 4:27 PM

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