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Detention Deficit

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ANDREW J. BREIG
  • Andrew J. Breig

Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."

It was a horrible idea, and it was opposed by all the same groups that now oppose allowing the Memphis Zoo to take over half the Greensward for parking on "peak days." The basin was debated for a while, but in June of that year was rejected in favor of finding another solution — which turned out to be building a parking garage in the new Overton Square development with a water-detention basin underneath.

Brilliant. Innovative. Win-win.

It was the second time in Memphis history that park activists had stopped the government from destroying the Greensward, the first time, of course, being when "little old ladies in tennis shoes" went to the Supreme Court to stop the construction of I-40 through the middle of Overton Park and Midtown in the late 1960s. Many contend, and I agree, that stopping that interstate from splitting the park — and the established old neighborhoods of the center city — made possible the housing and retail renaissance that is now happening. Oh, and, by the way, those activists also saved the Memphis Zoo.

Which makes the latest assault on the Greensward even more ironic. Had the very activists the zoo is now dismissing as self-interested dilettantes not stopped the detention basin, the zoo would have had to come up with another idea for parking by now.

By taking the backdoor action it took last week, the Memphis City Council showed it has little awareness of the park's history and no sensitivity to residents who have waged a decades-long battle to preserve the city's premier public space. The spectacle of wealthy white councilmen, most of whom belong to country clubs that are, shall we say, less than diverse, playing the race card is beyond hypocritical.

I take my dog to Overton Bark almost every weekend, and finding a place to park is always difficult. The playground, the dog park, and the Greensward draw large — and diverse — crowds. Toss in visitors to the Brooks Museum, students at the Memphis College of Art, and golfers, and you've got peak usage of public space. And when the increasingly popular Levitt Shell concerts happen, the parking problem extends into the evening hours.

Parking for Overton Park isn't just a zoo problem. It's a Memphis problem. And it's only going to get worse as more and more people move back into the center city. Finding a solution will require cooperation from all park tenants and innovative thinking by our mayor and council, who need to put aside loyalties to their financial patrons and do the right thing for all of us.

Don't make us put you in detention.

Bruce VanWyngarden
brucev@memphisflyer.com


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