The plan for new parking at the Memphis Zoo will move forward after Memphis City Council members approved a new way forward Tuesday through another disagreement on the project between officials from the zoo and th Overton Park Conservancy (OPC).
The original plan was approved last June. It included a newly designed parking lot for the zoo to add hundreds of spaces, a berm around the Overton Park Greensward, and an end to the use of Greensward as an overflow parking lot for the zoo.
The plan hit a snag recently as zoo and OPC leaders wrangled over funding the project.
The issue was debated at a committee meeting at Memphis City Hall Tuesday and the final decision was made with a vote Tuesday evening by the full council.
Council member Reid Hedgepeth floated an idea to delay the vote on the matter until June 20. The delay would allow more time for leaders to shape up financial plans. That delay failed, however.
A new proposal from Hedgepeth gave OPC leaders until June 11 to show that they could, in fact, raise the funds necessary to help build the new parking lot.
In a show of compromise, Hedgpeth offered up an amendment to the original plan, which would shrink the size of the new parking lot's parking spaces by one square foot. This move would save more than acre of the Greensward from the project.
The plan was approved Tuesday.
Memphis City Council members will vote Tuesday evening on how to move ahead with a parking project for Overton Park, a vote preceded by a contentious debate as the issue moved through a committee.
The parking plan would give the Memphis Zoo new parking spaces and end parking on the Overton Park Greensward (OPC). Council members voted on July 19, 2016 to approve that plan which was, at the time, was agreed upon by the OPC and the zoo. However, that plan did not include specific timelines for financing the project.
This was not an issue until OPC leaders came to council members three weeks ago to give the city its portion — $250,000 — for the design portion of the project. Zoo president Chuck Brady took the opportunity to contest the move, noting that the zoo would not put any money towards the project because OPC did not have its share of funds for building the project.
He said there was little point to spend money on designing something that might not be built. He re-stated the position Tuesday but noted that the full board of the zoo met and approved the move.
“We expect the compromise project to go forward as it was designed,” Brady said. “With no changes in financing and no changes in scope.”
OPC chairman, Eric Barnes, told council members that his board approved a measure to fund half of the design costs and half of the construction costs. That vote came after conversations earlier this year with city hall officials about a different financing plan that would allow zoo parking fees to offset the cost of the project.
With that option off the table, Barnes said his board has started fundraising to support the project from corporate entities, private individuals, and more.
Council member Patrice Robinson asked Brady that if visitors are charged to enter the zoo, why can that money not be invested in a new parking lot? Brady told Robinson that funds from parking, entry, and concessions comprise only about 80 percent of what it costs to run the zoo. He said the additional $14 million is collected annually by fundraising.
Council member Reid Hedgepeth confers with Memphis Zoo president Chuck Brady after a contentious committee meeting on the zoo parking project.
“If we defer any revenues we get in, we have to cut back on other aspects of the zoo,” Brady said.
Council member Martavius Jones peppered Brady with questions about zoo finances, trying to make the point that the zoo does have recurring revenues streams, unlike the OPC.
“So, naturally, it may take the OPC longer to raise this money than any enterprise that has money coming in every day and charging admission,” Jones said.
He argued that the project should move forward to, at least, get a design of the project. If OPC is unable to come up with the construction money, he said, then “at least there will be a design.” Jones also noted that budget season is almost upon city hall and that if “we have to withhold $250,000 from the zoo to pay for the design, I’m willing to do it.”
“I don’t want to use any additional public dollars for parking but if the parties are saying that they will not move forward on this, we’ll have 2016 January, February, March redux up here and I don’t think anyone wants that,” Jones said, referring to the hours of hot debates and public protests around the Greensward issue.
But council member Reid Hedgepeth asked his colleagues to look at the issue from the zoo’s point of view. He said it would not be fair for the zoo’s board to spend $250,000 on a plan that may or may not be implemented.
“To spend half of a million dollars on a design is a lot of money and it’s a whole lot of money to spend on a design that won’t be implemented," Hedgepeth said.
He said the process won’t be fair until OPC can show that they can pay for its share of the project.
To that, Barnes said his board has raised $6 million since its inception in 2011 wth all that money going back into the park, a public entity. He said he’d hoped that earn the board some good faith from the council that it would raise the money necessary for the project’s construction.
“You know all know who funds us,” Barnes said. They have funded projects all kinds of projects all over over town and it borders on an insult to question our good faith.”
Hedgepeth said his argument was not meant to be an insult but that he didn’t want the city to have to pick up a construction tab and for the zoo to have to unnecessarily spend $250,000. Hedgepeth said, “show us you have $1 million or something to say we can move forward,” in a comment that felt more off-the-cuff than a serious legislative directive.
Council member Worth Morgan said the original agreement should, probably, included a finance timelines. However, “we had faith that we’d sit down at the table and work it out without arguing over it.” He said the financing timeline issues shows a “complete lack of trust between the zoo board and the OPC.”
Like Jones, Morgan also hinted at some legislative tactics he might use to move the project along. He said the original agreement might need to be changed to include a timeline.
To go along with that compromise, may be another for park advocates who want to shrink the size of the parking spaces in the zoo’s new lot. That part of the plan, which was suggested by Hedgepeth last year, would make the space 10 foot by 20 foot, the same as at Tiger Lane.
However, park advocates have noted that zoo visitors don’t need spaces so big and that making them so large, the plan takes another acre of land from the Greensward.
Council member Joe Brown did not weigh in on the debate, only to say that “I’m with you,” and motioning to Hedgepeth.
Hedgepeth said after the meeting that his pro-zoo positions on the parking project were not informed by the fact that many of his major campaign donors
are also Memphis Zoo board members.