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Memphis’ Central Park

The Memphis Zoo/Overton Park controversy is really about the right of Memphians to craft their environment.

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Some describe the clash over the Memphis Zoo's frequent and unacceptable practice of parking cars on Overton Park's Greensward as an absurd battle over a grassy lot. In fact, it is about the right of Memphians to actively craft their urban environment.

When I moved to Memphis in 1998, Overton Park's playgrounds were in disrepair, its infrastructure was crumbling, and crime was common. Today, Overton Park is thriving, thanks to the work of the Overton Park Conservancy and the advocacy and volunteer efforts of park users. Every day, a diverse spectrum of Memphians enjoys renovated playgrounds, large picnic tables for family reunions, a weekly farmers market, fenced dog parks, and more, all without charge.

The Memphis Zoo has also grown during that period, adding four major exhibits, most recently the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, but not one additional parking spot. In response to increased parking pressure, the zoo was temporarily permitted to park cars on Overton Park's Greensward during times of peak demand.

The Greensward is not an unused field or stretch of vacant land. It is an integral aesthetic design feature of the park, offering pastoral views created with specific scale and proportion. Parking cars there is akin to erecting a cell tower in the middle of the zoo's beautiful China exhibit. Nevertheless, park users endured this ill-conceived stopgap measure in silence for many years.

Unfortunately, Greensward parking has increased and now occurs on virtually all weekends and holidays when the weather is nice, exactly when people want to use the park. Even when cars aren't present, tire ruts carved in the soil make the area unsightly and unsuitable for intended uses such as walking, playing Frisbee and soccer, and kite-flying.

In response to rising calls to end Greensward parking, the zoo has sabotaged the efforts of community partners seeking alternative parking solutions. For example, the zoo actively discouraged its members from using shuttles during a trial run in 2014. They refused to partner in or contribute financially to the OPC's expert-led, public traffic and parking study currently underway.

Recently, the zoo has become more aggressive. They uprooted 27 trees to accommodate more cars, trees that were donated to the OPC by a long-time park supporter and planted in memory of her mother. They are attempting a landgrab by suing for management authority over part of the Greensward. They plan to install a parking surface, a prospect that is unacceptable to park users. The zoo clearly views Greensward parking as a permanent entitlement, not an interim measure.

The Old Forest is another wonderful Overton Park amenity. It is heavily used by runners, cyclists, and walkers; it is an educational resource; and it provides the tonic of wilderness for city dwellers. It is home to an uncommonly wide range of plant and animal species.

Sadly, the zoo has done significant harm to this ecosystem and threatens further injury. In 2008, without warning or soliciting public comment, it clear-cut four acres of rare, old-growth urban forest to make way for its Teton Trek exhibit, which was built in such a way as to expose park users to the kind of industrial views that they go to the park to escape. The zoo plans to develop an additional 17 acres of forest, again with no scheduled opportunity for public comment.

Such development would radically and permanently damage the Old Forest. The zoo should honor its stated values: "The biodiversity of ALL [emphasis theirs] flora and fauna have value and as a zoological and botanical garden we have a responsibility to support their preservation. The destruction, degradation, or loss of functional ecosystems and the species that occupy them is unacceptable."

Memphians are tired of the zoo management's elitist and destructive tactics. "Save the Greensward" signs are present in hundreds of yards and businesses around town. Our elected officials have received hundreds of emails criticizing the zoo. Letters to the editor, responses to zoo board members' editorial columns, and posts on the zoo's own Facebook feed tilt heavily against the zoo's heavy-handed tactics. The zoo's characterization of its critics as a "vocal few" is demonstrably inaccurate.

The zoo is a beloved Memphis institution, but we have accommodated their selfish behavior long enough. We taxpaying Memphians want our park back. It is time for zoo leaders to solve the problem created by their failure to plan for adequate parking within their own boundaries. Whatever form this solution takes, this much is clear: All Greensward parking must end, and no additional park land can be allocated to the zoo.

Eric Gottlieb is a proud Memphian, a daily commuter through Overton Park, and a member of the Memphis Zoological Society.

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