Memphis Zoo Strikes Back on Parking Proposals

Posted by Toby Sells on Tue, May 20, 2014 at 12:46 PM

Get Off Our Lawn protestors block the gravel drive to the Greensward at Overton Park.
  • Get Off Our Lawn
  • Get Off Our Lawn protestors block the gravel drive to the Greensward at Overton Park.

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."

Comments (33)

Showing 1-25 of 33

I like the idea of running trams from the proposed East Parkway lot. That would add a layer of security to the old forest too. Of course, then there's the new threat of being run over by a tram.

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Posted by nobody on 05/20/2014 at 1:44 PM

TITLE: The Empire (The Zoo) Strikes Back.

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Posted by tomguleff on 05/20/2014 at 1:57 PM

Maybe they should move the zoo to SHELBY FARMS. Everything's much more wonderful there.

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Posted by martin.thompson.587268 on 05/20/2014 at 2:02 PM

Wow, I always thought of the Memphis Zoo as some type of really admirable professional organization, but this statement has definitely altered that perception. The zoo is jerking back and forth on the issue so fast it is hard to keep up. They would have done better to leave out the drama and stick to the facts. Instead they have reduced their credibility on the issue.

In a previous statement the zoo says they rarely use the greensward for parking- then they say it will cut the zoo’s parking capacity by 33% which is apparently untenable. So which is it: rare or a disaster? They then say the 80,000 attendees that use the greensward will be mostly city residents- how do they know that? Is it based on the fact that most visitors to the zoo live in Memphis? In that case there is still nothing special about their precious parking on the park.

“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.” Really? They will have to wait hours for a tram to pick them up at Overton Park and carry them to the Zoo? So is the idea to have one tram making 2 loops a day? If not, where did they get the whole “waiting for hours” bit from?

“The city is asking that children, elderly or disabled, zoo members and out-of-town guests walk this distance to the zoo”. So apparently the zoo does not currently provide adequate parking for the disabled. I say that because they are apparently directing those with disabilities to park on the greensward which does not satisfy ADA requirements. Time for someone to sue seeing as the zoo just incriminated itself in an official public statement.

“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.” Try as it might, the zoo cannot co-opt Overton Park. This is not about access to OP, this is about access to the zoo. Their attempt to make it about access to the entirety OP is as sad as it is shallow and desperate. It’s really part of the bigger issue: the zoo believes its needs and rights surpass those of the average citizen and Overton Park. The zoo apparently believes that it is not merely a part of Overton Park (one of several destinations and uses), but that Overton Park serves a secondary role as support for the zoo. I’m sorry, but that is enough to push this individual from passive to active support for the “Get Off Our Lawn Organization”.

In the end, this should not be about parking on the Greensward, but how an organization was given special treatment to not provide appropriate adequate parking when no such exception exists for any other organization in town. The Zoo does not own the park, the individual citizens do and as such they are welcome to sit, picnic, or throw a frisbee in any open space there.

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Posted by barf on 05/20/2014 at 2:19 PM

The fact that the Zoo is withdrawing support for the shuttle BEFORE even giving it a chance to succeed speaks volumes.

I am also willing to bet that the walk from the middle of the greensward to the existing zoo entrance and back is easily 1.2 miles.

The State Natural Area designation does not allow for motorized vehicles in the Old Forest. Likewise, the Mayor, who just made a speech at the opening of the East Parkway Bike Gate, realizes that the closed roads are for non-motorized use and valued by many. We can sit in front of a tram as easily as a car. In this scenario the Zoo is merely shifting the focus of our protests, not solving any problems.

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Posted by Stacey Greenberg on 05/20/2014 at 2:28 PM

Really hard to figure Brady's motives. He doesn't want to try a pilot program that could be tweaked according to any problems that might arise? He is saying "no" before it is even tried on a trial basis? Sounds like the zoo is in need of more progressive, innovative leadership that doesn't blow a gasket every time criticism comes up. There are managers out there who would approach this differently and pride him or herself on finding a working solution that satisfies all.

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Posted by Greg Russell on 05/20/2014 at 3:16 PM

Sometimes you just have to proudly hang a sign that says: "SOLD OUT!" People make reservations and buy advance tickets for many attractions, restaurants, hotels, and shows all the time. Keeps things orderly.

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Posted by RonGephart on 05/20/2014 at 3:19 PM

Close it down. Zoos are animal jails.

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Posted by Tommy Foster on 05/20/2014 at 3:26 PM

im not sure those paved paths were built to a standard to handle constant motor vehicle traffic. esp from heavy trams.

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Posted by Casey H. on 05/20/2014 at 3:40 PM

Can we FOIA the zoo's budget and finances? Is it making thousands of dollars off parking those cars on the greensward? It certainly is on free afternoon Tuesdays (which does not occur during school vacations) since those aren't members parking. Why not reserve a larger portion of the current parking for those who can't walk the 1.2 miles? Or reconfigure the area to allow for dropping off?

This is the most outrageous and ridiculous response. I too have spoken highly of and admired the zoo, but this is such a selfish and peacocky way to enter a debate.

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Posted by Courtney Santo on 05/20/2014 at 3:41 PM

The Memphis Zoo does come across as being very snarky in their reply. Amazing to think that someone at the Memphis Zoo does not have a PR person who would have taken the presidents reply and rewrote it. So that it would have said the same thing but in a much less snarky way. After reading that, I'm much more likely to back the protestors than the Zoo. When before I didn't care either way.

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Posted by David on 05/20/2014 at 3:41 PM

Since there will be no parking on the greensward space during this period, it would seem to behoove Mr. Brady, in order to "protect the zoo as we know it today," to support this pilot program. By not supporting it, he is likely losing business as well as support from the community and many zoo members. Not to mention shooting himself in the foot. What a bad management decision. Memphis Zoo can do better.

Per OPC email today:

Shuttle service will launch this Saturday, May 24 and run on Saturdays and Sundays for the next five weeks. During the shuttle's run, there will be no parking on the Greensward. We need your support to make the shuttle a success. Demonstrating good ridership numbers makes it much more likely that the shuttle can continue, which will reduce the number of cars coming into Overton Park.

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Posted by Greg Russell on 05/20/2014 at 3:46 PM

I'm so sorry that I can't recommend the memphis zoo to visitors. They are bad neighbors to the park and the surrounding neighborhoods (and businesses). It's interesting that you don't see the Brooks Museum or MCA proposing that they use greenspace for overflow parking.

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Posted by Melissa McGuire Bridgman on 05/20/2014 at 3:47 PM

The zoo has had MANY years to develop a plan. This has been going on for years and they have not sought out a proper solution. Their inability to provide adequate parking for their guests is not Overton Park's problem. That in itself speaks volumes about the zoo management and its ability to plan for future growth.

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Posted by FloydstheBarber on 05/20/2014 at 4:03 PM

I'm going to stereotype a bit based on the photo.

That looks like a bunch of "bros" protesting parking in the park. In that picture, I see flip flops (guessing Rainbows), a visor, boat shoes, button down with rolled up sleeves, and pastel shorts. About the only thing I don't see are croakies and Costas.

These dudes are fratted up. It's an odd picture, because I'm not used to seeing a bunch of frat guys protest anything park or environmentally related. With that knowledge, I can only assume these guys live in those houses across the street from the park, and they like to stage their weekend ultimate frisbee games in the Greensward space.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 05/20/2014 at 4:19 PM

If it weren't for the unicorn petting zoo, I'd be upset about this. But, damn. Every time I pet little Ikea, a rainbow forms over this town instantly.

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Posted by Dave Clancy on 05/20/2014 at 4:27 PM

It ain't the Grove.

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Posted by CL Mullins on 05/20/2014 at 4:29 PM

Use the Overton Square garage, shuttle every 10 minutes, fill garage with paid advertisements on every column and wall, throw in radio ads on the speakers, use that money for revenue and stop charging people to park in at night. All the problems solved. You're welcome.

report 10 likes, 7 dislikes   
Posted by Kate on 05/20/2014 at 4:29 PM

The zoo probably wouldn't even be there were it not for a group of citizens like those you see pictured. Whether you agree with the decision or not, I-40 was not able to wipe out the park because the neighborhood stood firm.

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Posted by RonGephart on 05/20/2014 at 4:30 PM

Methinks it's high time to show the Zoo that opposition to parking on the greensward comes from more than just a "small group of protestors." Like many others, I've been silent on this issue up until now, but no more. When does the Get Off Our Lawn group plan to hold its next meeting? I'll do my darndest to be there to lend my support. Maybe it's time to for us to rally, picket, protest or do whatever it takes to get the message across to Zoo officials.

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Posted by Strait Shooter on 05/20/2014 at 4:39 PM

The logical answer is for the City Clowncil to pass a resolution (or whatever it is they do) to allow zoo overflow parking on the grass during the spring/summer months and let the parking fees of those vehicles go to a fund for the park. Why not? We know the Clowncil loves to wade into park controversies (Forest Park anyone?) As far as the shuttle to and from the Overton Square parking garage? I'm sure the politicians would LOVE for somebody to actually USE the garage! You know, after the politicians said it was vital to the area (and now sits virtually empty everyday) and used millions of taxpayer money to build. I for one live in the dreaded suburbs but we love to come to the zoo at least once a month. We have needed to park in the grass several times due to the crowd. But if we know we will be turned away at the gate because 4 protesters are blocking parking on the grass then I won't even bother burning the gas to drive my family to the zoo. I sure as heck won't park in the garage and wait 15 to 30 minutes for a shuttle (to the zoo and back). Leave it to the park hippies to create a problem that was non-existant for twenty years.

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Posted by Firefox on 05/20/2014 at 7:28 PM

I agree that the zoo's response is off-key and they should be approaching this in a much more conciliatory way. However, the zoo draws over 1.1 million people per year - more than double that of Graceland and more than 15 times that of the Brooks (70,000 per year). They're hemmed in a space that they've basically outgrown which has resulted in this parking issue - there's really not any open space other than the greensward since the rest of the park is protected forest, a golf course, a museum and a college. And they're also one of the few things around here which actually supports itself (over $18mm in revenues and $3mm in profit last year according to their tax return on From that perspective, I understand a little bit of their frustration.

Not saying that I have a solution, but maybe I'm willing to cut them a little slack since they've turned what was an ok zoo into a real attraction and are kind of screwed by their own success.

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Posted by Griz Guy on 05/20/2014 at 10:41 PM

One of my favorite activities as a child was going to the zoo and looking at all those animals from faraway places and the wildlands. I especially liked when the enclosures were on the smaller side so there was no way that the sneaky little critter could escape my gaze. After all, I was at the zoo to look at animals, not to play “where’s waldo” with the bears. What I didn’t realize or even think about as a child was the life that those animals had that I so desperately wanted to stare at. While zoos have improved immensely from the beginning of the 20th century, I still question the ethics of holding wild animals in artificial environments that can never truly emulate their natural habitat and be stared at all day by hairless primates.

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Posted by Tommy Foster on 05/21/2014 at 5:43 AM

As long as cars are being left in the middle of our public parks; we should treat them accordingly as public playground equipment.

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Posted by Count Dracula on 05/21/2014 at 6:28 AM

The zoo should have moved ages ago, before they sank so much money into all the really fine exhibits that have made the Memphis Zoo the wonderful attraction that it is. We have one of the best zoos in the country, but that success has only made it obvious that building these exhibits in the current location, rather than in a new location that had room to expand, was the wrong decision. And the zoo is still building world-class exhibits which will only make the problem worse.

But maybe it's not too late. We have an enormous metro space just sitting there empty, and a bunch of people looking for ways to spend millions and millions of taxpayer dollars on something that will never work (Sports Park?, Bike Bridge?). Why not spend it on something we know will return the city's investment? Move the zoo to the Fairgrounds, and if we see we need it we can build the needless sports park at the zoo. I can guarantee you a sports park will never need overflow parking on the Greensward.

report 4 likes, 2 dislikes   
Posted by Jeff on 05/21/2014 at 7:46 AM
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