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The Heart of Memphis...

Overton Park Conservancy has big plans for Midtown's crown jewel.



It's a sunny spring Sunday, and a woman who looks to be in her 30s is sitting cross-legged on a blanket under a shade tree on Overton Park's greensward. She's aiming a camera at three small children playing a few feet away. Nearby, a man in running shorts is sweating profusely as he runs past construction workers erecting the entrance to Overton Bark, soon to be the city's newest dog park, located across the lane from the playground overlooking Rainbow Lake.

On the playground, a mother waits at the bottom of the slide as her toddler zips down into her arms. Just outside the playground fence, a dog splashes around in Rainbow Lake as his human companion watches from the sidewalk.

On the Overton Park golf course, men in shorts and baseball caps are leaning on their golf cart, watching one of their buddies swing and send a ball flying down the fairway.

It's a typical Sunday at Overton Park. The same scene could have been painted on this day last year, but one big thing has changed: In December, the Memphis City Council unanimously approved a 10-year management agreement allowing the nonprofit Overton Park Conservancy to manage Midtown's largest park.

"The city still owns the assets, but we have executed an agreement with the city that really puts the responsibility for the management of the park on the conservancy," said Gary Shorb, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and board chairman of the conservancy. "We have basically taken over the maintenance, capital investment, and a lot of the daily operating details."

Much like the Shelby Farms Conservancy (the nonprofit that manages Shelby Farms Park in East Memphis), the Overton Park Conservancy has the ability to raise private dollars to be invested in park improvements.

Over the next 10 years, the conservancy plans to update playground equipment, add restrooms to the park, build a walking trail around the greensward, and boost security, among other projects.

Their first major building project, the Overton Bark dog park, is scheduled to open in June. They're even working with the Memphis Zoo to plan a parking garage, which would alleviate the zoo's overflow parking on the greensward.

"I might be biased, but I think Overton Park is the best city park we have," said Memphis city councilman Jim Strickland. "But with the financial condition the city is in, we're not able to maintain it the way it needs to be maintained. Now, I think the citizens will get a much better park at a reduced cost."

From City Limits to City Center

Overton Park was founded in 1901, after the city negotiated the purchase of Lea's Woods, a 342-acre site owned by Overton Lea of Nashville, for $110,000. At that time, Overton Park formed the eastern boundary of the city. Although Lea's Woods was purchased from a man named Overton, the park was actually named in honor of Judge John Overton, one of the city's founders.

George Kessler, a landscape architect from Kansas City, was contracted to design Overton Park, as well as what is now Martin Luther King Riverside Park and the Memphis parkway system.

"This was around the time the parks and playgrounds movement was starting in the country," said historian and Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) board member Jimmy Ogle. "We had a scarcity of park land, but in the early 1900s, there was a movement to buy pieces of parkland. Before that time, the parks you went to on the weekends were cemeteries, like Elmwood."

Overton Park continued to evolve over the years, as cultural amenities were added. The Memphis Zoo, which began as a single pet bear chained to a tree, was founded in 1906. The Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, the city's first art museum, was established on the property in 1916. And in 1936, the Works Progress Administration built the Overton Park Shell (now the Levitt Shell). The Memphis Academy of Arts (today's Memphis College of Art) relocated to Overton Park in 1959.

As the park's amenities grew, so did the city's eastern boundary. It wasn't long before the city's expansion led to the biggest threat in Overton Park history. In 1957, the Tennessee Department of Highways proposed building Interstate 40 straight through the park's center.

A group of citizens, described by the media as "little old ladies in tennis shoes," formed CPOP to protest the highway plan. After years of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of CPOP in 1971, halting the state's plan to build a highway through the park. The threat still loomed, however, until 1986 when the state's right-of-way land in the park was deeded back to the city.

"It would have come straight through the park, taken out 26 acres, and continued straight through the Evergreen neighborhood," said Naomi Van Tol, current CPOP board member and director of operations and capital improvements for the Overton Park Conservancy. "It really would have destroyed the park, and the zoo would have had to move."

Today, Overton Park attracts thousands of visitors a year, and despite facing various threats to its green space, Midtown's crown jewel has survived. With the Overton Park Conservancy now in place, the park will not only be improved for users, but the 184 acres it manages should have more protection from future encroachment.

Polishing the Jewel

Last June, hundreds of Overton Park users stopped by the Memphis College of Art to fill out a survey on what they'd like to see happen in the park and whether or not they'd support the idea of a conservancy model.

The results: 68 percent of those surveyed said they'd like a nonprofit group to step up and take over management of Overton Park. Another 15 percent said "yes," so long as the conservancy was "transparent, accountable, and works with the city and community."

Shorb and George Cates, the retired CEO of Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc., were the two behind the conservancy cause, and once the surveys validated support for the nonprofit management model, they presented their proposal for the Overton Park Conservancy to the Memphis City Council. The council approved the management agreement, which also had the backing of Mayor A C Wharton in December.

"I don't see how anyone could have been against this. In the long run, it will save the city tax dollars, and we'll get an improved piece of property. I think that's why it sailed through council with unanimous support," Strickland said.

While the city retains ownership of the park, the conservancy will handle the day-to-day operations, maintenance, and capital improvements. This arrangement takes some of the burden off of the cash-strapped city parks department, and it allows the conservancy to raise money to make the park better.

"What this allows for is private investment through the conservancy, which a lot of people are willing to do," Shorb said. "Anybody can make a donation to the city, but I think most people feel like they're already doing that with their tax dollars."

The city will continue to invest $150,000 per year in the park for upkeep, but annual city funds for capital improvement projects will taper off in 2016, when the conservancy will only have private dollars for new projects. So far, the conservancy has raised $4 million of its projected $6 million budget.

That money covers everything from regular maintenance, which the conservancy took over from the city in February, to new capital projects, like the dog park, the playground updates, and other improvements.

That's a break for the city parks department, which, after budget cuts, has reduced its mowing schedule for city parks from every 18 days to every 32 days. Now, Overton Park will be mowed as needed, thanks to the conservancy's contract with landscaping company EcoSystems, Inc.

The city will continue to remove the trash from park bins, but the conservancy will handle litter cleanup throughout the park. Before the conservancy took over, the city parks department could only afford to pick up litter once a week, which Larry Franks, administrator of maintenance for city parks, said wasn't nearly often enough. Franks said the parks department also had a hard time keeping up with fallen trees and drainage issues.

"The Overton Park Conservancy is a blessing," Franks said. "We do have to give them money, but they can get more bang for their buck. They can do capital improvement projects quicker and cheaper than we can. They can do a lot of things city government can't do."

The 10-year management agreement covers 184 of the park's 342 acres, which includes the greensward, Rainbow Lake, Veterans Plaza, the East Parkway Picnic Area, the formal gardens, and the Old Forest State Natural Area. The Memphis Zoo, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis College of Art, and the Levitt Shell manage their own areas, but they are active partners in the park's future. The city will continue to manage the golf course.

"George Cates has been so amazing to me, because there are so many different constituencies for the park: the Brooks, the zoo, the College of Art, Park Friends, and the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. They haven't always seen eye to eye, but he is the one person who brought them all together," Strickland said.

Cates served as acting director until last week, when the conservancy hired a permanent executive director, Tina Sullivan. (Cates will continue to serve on the conservancy's board of directors.) A University of Memphis graduate, Sullivan worked for several years for San Diego's Unified Port District, which managed the land around San Diego Bay. In that role, Sullivan honed her skills in fund-raising and communicating between parks and city government.

"I feel like everything I've been doing for the past 15 years has been in preparation for this role as director of the Overton Park Conservancy," Sullivan said. "I grew up in Memphis, and when I've lived in Memphis, I've always lived close to the park. This has been my neighborhood park for quite awhile."

Sullivan will lead the organization as it continues to raise money and makes good on promised park improvements, while long-time Overton Park supporter Van Tol heads up the day-to-day operations and projects.

"My goal is to make sure we're only adding things that people need and will use. We want to make the park feel welcoming and safe for everyone," Van Tol said.

Dog Parks and Playgrounds

On a recent Sunday morning in March, Van Tol led an older couple on one of CPOP's twice-monthly nature hikes through the Old Forest State Natural Area.

She pointed out budding buckeyes and yellow wood violets and explained the difference between poison ivy and its harmless look-alike, box elder, in the 126-acre forest. A little farther along, Van Tol spotted a small patch of Chinese privet.

"Oops. It looks like we missed a little bit," Van Tol said, as she explained the conservancy's first big project: removing nearly 100 city dump-trucks-full of the non-native plant that was crowding out the forest's native species.

In years past, the Boy Scouts and the nonprofit Overton Park Friends group have volunteered to remove privet, but it always came back. This time, workers were able to spray the roots with Roundup to stave off much of the plant's return in 30 acres of the forest.

With that project behind them, the conservancy is now focusing on Overton Bark, a $175,000 fenced dog park on Old Forest Lane designed by Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects. The park will have separate areas for large dogs and small dogs, an agility course, and water fountains for dogs. Benches will be constructed from fallen trees. The grand opening is planned for June.

"Dogs have always been frequent visitors to Overton Park. Now they'll have a fenced-in park where they can socialize with other pets," Cates said in a press release.

Plans to update the Rainbow Lake playground are under way, and construction is due to begin later this year.

"We'll have a forest theme, with a natural transition between the Old Forest and greensward to make those areas feel more connected than they do now," Van Tol said. "We're keeping the existing playground structures, but we're moving the swings around and those will connect to a big climbing structure. Our goal is to make it more appealing to all ages, not just little-bitty kids."

Additionally, the conservancy plans to gut the Rainbow Lake restrooms and create new unisex family bathrooms inside. Currently, the only restrooms in Overton Park are porta potties.

Other projects planned for this year are the addition of security cameras at Rainbow Lake and the East Parkway picnic area, which will feed into the Memphis Police Department's Real Time Crime Center, and new park signage. They also plan to begin work on the greenline entry connecting Overton Park to Broad Avenue via the East Parkway intersection.

By 2013, work on that greenline entry will wrap up, and the conservancy will focus on new restrooms and playground updates in the East Parkway picnic area, as well as entry portals and trail signage in the Old Forest.

In 2014, they'll install a walking trail around the greensward and possibly install irrigation systems in selected parkland areas. Beyond that, projects are still being planned. The conservancy may focus on converting some of the land currently used to house the city's General Services department along East Parkway back into park space.

Besides the big projects, Van Tol also oversees regular park maintenance, such as mowing, litter cleanup, and planting native species in the flower beds.

Although it's not included in the conservancy's budget, they're also working with the Memphis Zoo on a plan to build a parking garage to eliminate the zoo's overflow parking on the greensward. Survey results from last June made it clear that park users want the cars off of their space.

"People and cars don't naturally mix on park land," Strickland said. "And it's happening now to the point where it could be dangerous."

The Memphis Zoo is currently working on a funding plan for the garage. It will be constructed in the zoo's northeast corner near the maintenance shed. Zoo spokesperson Abby Dane said it could be three to five years before the garage is completed.

Friends and Advocates

Although the Overton Park Conservancy has the major responsibility, it isn't the only group working to protect the park. The Overton Park Friends volunteer group and CPOP remain active advocates.

"We've been around since 1992, and we do a lot of projects around the park, like volunteer cleanups, trail maintenance, planting trees, and putting up informational kiosks," said Martha Kelly, president of Overton Park Friends. "We're just the eyes and ears on the ground in the park all the time."

Recently, Park Friends invested in an engineering plan for the running trail in the Old Forest State Natural Area. With help from the city and the Rhodes College track team, they'll soon begin replacing the trail's gravel, which tends to wash out every few years.

Although the conservancy is handling day-to-day maintenance, Kelly says the Friends group will supplement their work by continuing regular volunteer cleanups.

The group has also done advocacy over the years to combat threats to the park, such as a proposed, city-backed senior center at Poplar and East Parkway that would have required razing part of the Old Forest and a 2009 proposed city plan to construct a Lick Creek flood retention basin in the center of the park's greensward.

"We got a petition together and more than 4,000 signatures to keep the city engineer's office from digging up the greensward," Kelly said.

CPOP also fought against the retention basin in 2009. The original CPOP group disbanded in the 1980s, but the nonprofit advocacy group was reincorporated in 2008 in response to the Memphis Zoo's clear-cutting of part of the Old Forest for its Teton Trek exhibit.

"We were just so outraged, and we felt like there was no advocacy happening for the Old Forest," Van Tol said. "We had to decide what we wanted to do about it and how we could keep this from happening again."

The newly formed CPOP — founded by Van Tol, Amy Stewart-Banbury, and Stacey Greenberg — wasn't able to stop the zoo from cutting down trees for Teton Trek, but they were able to push for legislation that would protect the forest from further encroachment.

After some pushback from the city, the group was finally able to obtain a conservation easement, sponsored by state senator Beverly Marrero and state representative Jeanne Richardson, through the legislature, protecting 126 acres of forest as a state natural area. A small portion of the forest, behind the zoo's fence line, remains unprotected.

Although the conservancy is now in place, Van Tol believes CPOP still plays a role in protecting Overton Park.

"There are always limits to what you can do when you're a nonprofit trying to raise money, so politically, there are some things the conservancy may not be able to advocate for," Van Tol said. "It's helpful to have citizen advocates who are free to say what they want to say. CPOP and many others will keep an eye on things."

Sullivan agrees that both groups have a place despite the conservancy's presence in the park.

"I think those are our most passionate supporters," Sullivan said. "I hope they continue their work. Hopefully, we'll all be partnering together."

Kelly said her group will continue to push for a conservation easement protecting the entire park, especially the city-run golf course area not overseen by the conservancy.

"We have the state natural area that protects the forest, but we would like to see an easement protecting all of the green space. My biggest fear is if the city cuts out the golf course someday, and they say, 'We've got some expensive Poplar frontage. We'll set that off.' Or, 'We need more parking. Let's pave around the Brooks and the Shell.'"

Park Friends would also like easement protection for the unprotected part of the Old Forest inside the zoo's fence.

"We want to be sure they don't decide to build another hippo pond or whatever and clear-cut more trees," Kelly said. "We really need an easement for the whole park, and I hope the conservancy will take that seriously and go to bat for that."

The conservancy's 10-year management agreement is renewable, but Sullivan hopes by that time many of their plans will be accomplished and new projects will be on the horizon.

"I'd like to see a more finished product by then, with some of our enhancements, infrastructure improvements, and connections to the neighborhoods completed," Sullivan said. "We want everyone in Memphis to feel a sense of ownership and pride in this historic park."

As for Gary Shorb: "I see this as the jewel of parks in the greater Memphis area. It has the bones and the history, and now it's just a matter of investment and outstanding operations. We've laid the groundwork. Now we have to make it happen."

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