It's a spring afternoon in Overton Park and scores of Memphians are enjoying the beautiful weather. Dog owners, Frisbee players, and walkers are taking a relaxation and recreation break in one of the most popular of Memphis' many parks.
From the downtown riverfront parks to the neighborhood parks out east, the Memphis park system is one of our city's greatest resources. But recently some park land has been sacrificed to development, troubling many of the city's environmentalists.
"There's a trend recently in the city to treat park land like surplus property to be sold to the highest bidder," says Scott Banbury, president of the Memphis Audubon Society. "This flies in the face of park tradition that says this land should be set aside."
The boldest example came when Williams Petroleum was given the rights to develop seven acres of the Martin Luther King Jr. Park in southwest Memphis. Even though much of the surrounding neighborhood protested the decision, Park Services deputy director Bob Fouche says giving up the park land was worth it because the rental fees from Williams pay for a full-time staff and improvements to the park.
Glenn Cox, president of Park Friends, thinks giving up public space for profit is a bad idea. He says about a year ago Park Services even considered installing cell phone microwave-transmission towers disguised as trees to bring revenue into the park system. So far that hasn't happened, Cox says.
Cox and Park Friends are constantly on the lookout for the city's encroachment on park land. He says a year ago thousands of saplings were cut down to construct a cancer survivor park without proper public notification, and right now the group is fighting to keep Riverside Drive from expanding into Tom Lee Park.
Since the Memphis Park Commission was dissolved last year it's become more difficult for citizens to have their opinions heard. The commission's board used to meet once a month to hear citizens' complaints and concerns, but now the city council has assumed that responsibility.
"The city council meets twice a month, where the park commission met only once a month, but park issues are just one of hundreds of things on the city council's agenda. And sometimes it's difficult to get the commissioner's ear," Cox says.
The future of the riverfront and its parks has been the subject of intense debate in a series of recent public meetings. The non-profit Riverfront Development Commission (RDC) has been given the responsibility to develop a plan to reconnect Memphis to the waterfront and in the process wants to develop some public and park space. Though the plan would result in a net increase in park land, many citizens at the last meeting were upset at the thought of losing Jefferson Davis Park and downtown's library and fire station to development.
The library and fire station are part of the Overton Blocks, prime bluff-top property given to the city under the condition it be used only for the public interest. Benny Lindermon, president of the RDC, says the public services should be moved and the property developed for the good of the city. If necessary, Lindermon says, the RDC will go to court to proceed with its plan.
"The fire station and library create almost a barrier between downtown and the riverfront," he says. "If we use it for retail or housing so it's not a dead zone, we would lose public space, by definition, but we'd create something beneficial to the public."
Lindermon says the property could maintain its public use definition by reserving the ground floor of the fire station for some sort of cultural attraction, while using the upper floors for commercial or residential use. Cox says many people feel we can't have too much park space, but he says he doesn't have a problem with losing some public space if it will lead to a net improvement of downtown open space.
Though the public interest served in developing the Overton Blocks and public space downtown remains to be seen, another public/corporate partnership concerning a downtown park has disappointed some Memphians.
Before Handy Park was renovated, it was a place where on any spring or summer afternoon blues bands would play for tourists and locals lounging on benches in the shade of mature hardwood trees. But the city agreed to a deal which allowed a private company to turn the park into an amphitheater on the condition a "park-like" feel would remain.
The wooden benches are gone, replaced by a scattering of faux-wood picnic tables, an amphitheater with a gift shop, a snack bar, and a brick edifice emblazoned with a Budweiser sign. There is more green space and new public bathrooms, but Wendell Cooper, manager of Alfred's on Beale, says he liked the park better the way it was before.
"It used to be a place where people could come down and hang out and listen to music. But people don't really hang out there anymore," Cooper says. "It's more of a corporate thing, where people can come down and drink so people can make money."
Public/private collaborations are commonplace, Fouche says, and Parks Services remains open to more of these ventures. Even though he says their budget is sufficient at this point, his department could always do more with more money. Fouche adds that the loss of the park commission doesn't affect citizens' opportunity to speak their minds and he's satisfied with the results of the Handy and MLK Park deals.
You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.