by Toby Sells
The Memphis Zoo responded Tuesday to parking proposals from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton saying, if implemented, “it will lead to the demise of the zoo as we know it.”
Wharton said last week he no longer wants the zoo to use the Greensward at Overton Park as an overflow parking area. He also suggested other parking options for zoo visitors.
Zoo officials countered those suggestions with proposals of their own, including running two, high-capacity trams through the Old Forest. Also, they proposed building a new parking lot on the site of the city's maintenance facility, which has been a suggested site for the Eggleston Center for Photography.
Wharton’s statement last week was prompted by a group of protestors, known collectively as Get Off Our Lawn, that want Greensward parking banned outright. Group members have blocked some parking in the Greensward space used by the zoo by simply sitting in the area over the past few Saturdays and Sundays.
“Due to Mayor A C Wharton’s decision to join with the protestors’ mission, thousands of visitors have already been turned away from the zoo and excluded from Overton Park, a trend that will worsen with time,” said a statement from the Memphis Zoo on Tuesday.
Zoo officials said blocking Greensward parking will cut the zoo’s parking capacity by 33 percent, “which will lead to 80,000 people, mostly city residents, being turned away from Overton Park each year.”
Wharton delivered three alternatives to using the Greensward for parking last week. The zoo responded to each one in its statement Tuesday.
Wharton proposed a short-term, trial shuttle that would run from the new Overton Park garage to the zoo. The zoo statement said Tuesday it “has no choice but to remove its sponsorship” of the shuttle because it would take too long to move the visitors back and forth.
“We cannot support something that is going to be such a disservice to our guests,” said Memphis Zoo president Chuck Brady. “The [Overton Park Conservancy] claims the service will provide access to the zoo to the 2,000 guests who currently use the zoo’s overflow parking on busy days, and that just isn’t true. Guests would be frustrated at having to park so far away and being forced to wait hours for small shuttles that could not accommodate the volume of people it would need to service.”
Wharton proposed free, temporary parking at the city’s maintenance facility on East Parkway. Visitors would park, walk through the park, and enter at the Teton Trek entrance. The walk would be a 1.2-mile round trip, according to the zoo officials.
“The city is asking that children, elderly or disabled, zoo members and out-of-town guests walk this distance to the zoo,” the zoo statement read.
Wharton also proposed, a four-level, 400-space parking garage estimated to cost $5 million. Zoo officials said the garage “would not be remotely sufficient” for the amount of visitors that come on busy days. The zoo would need at least a 600-space garage. Also, to build a garage would mean moving zoo maintenance facilities. Together, the project comes to a total of $12 million, according to zoo officials.
“These are not viable alternatives,” the statement said. “We are restricting park access for tens of thousands of citizens because of the complaints of a few.”
The zoo officials countered Wharton's suggestions with proposals of their own. They said they could use the East Parkway lot but, instead of having guests walk through the forest, they want to shuttle them on two high-capacity trams on the paved roadways inside it.
“State regulations do not prohibit such activity and it would give the citizens from all around the city the chance to enjoy the park land their taxes support,” according to the zoo.
The zoo also proposed demolishing the city’s maintenance compound on East Parkway (if they were given the land by the city) and making a 200-space parking lot there. This could make way for a future garage on the site.
“The mayor seems to have chosen to give away that part of the East Parkway compound to a new photography museum, instead of accommodating visitors to the city’s existing number one attraction,” the zoo statement said.
With these together, zoo officials said they could “comply with the demand of this small group of protestors” and completely cut Greensward parking by the end of the year “but not sooner.”
The zoo summed up its statement, thusly:
“As it currently stands, the city is depriving 80,000 visitors and citizens the ability to visit one of the country’s premier zoos. Those 80,000 visitors who typically use the greensward will be turned away. Based on the alternatives presented, we have no choice but to assume that the mayor and the Overton Park Conservancy do not wish to see visitors from outside the surrounding neighborhood have access to Overton Park which should not be the purpose of this community park.”
“The limitations being placed on parking will be a constant deterrent to everyone other than its surrounding neighbors," zoo president Brady said. "The city isn’t solving the problem. It’s avoiding it."