Overton parking









The line between being a highly regarded, trusted organization, company, or government and one that isn’t can be thin and fragile.

It’s surprising how often we see an organization cross that line, and that seems to be what the Memphis Zoological Society has done.

But more than a feeling of surprise, we are left feeling sad at how cavalierly it has put at risk more than a century of good will that existed for one of the city’s most visited and most-loved attractions.

It’s hard at this point to even struggle to find a justification for the Zoo’s latest action – removing 27 trees in the Overton Park Greensward. It was an action that suggested that the Zoo now sees its disagreement with the Overton Park Conservancy as a ground war. That said, the Zoo lost the high ground a long time ago.

Lost Benefit of a Doubt

From its ham-handed public statements trying to explain its latest faux pas to thumbing its nose at all the people who want Overton Park to be a park rather than a parking lot, the Zoological Society has managed to lose the support of many employees, former employees, retirees, longtime members, neighbors, and civic activists.

If it were not for the vast experience and knowledge about all things Memphis that are found on the membership of its board, it would be possible to suggest the Zoo’s actions are the result of simple naïveté and unintended clumsiness.

But any benefit of a doubt was lost months ago.

At this point, actions being taken by the Zoo suggest it has fallen victim to groupthink: the psychological phenomenon in which people set aside their own personal beliefs to adopt the opinion of the rest of the group, which in turn, creates insular and insulated decision-making.

Groupthink Symptoms

Social psychologist Irving L. Janis identified eight “symptoms” that indicate groupthink:

1) Illusions of invulnerability that lead members to have a false sense of their power

2) Unquestioned beliefs that lead members to ignore possible problems and ignore the consequences of group actions

3) Rationalizing that prevents members from recognizing warning signs

4) Stereotyping that leads to ignoring or demonizing anyone who opposes the group

5) Self-censorship which causes people with misgivings to remain quiet

6) “Mindguards” who act as censors to hide problematic information from the group

7) Illusions of unanimity that leads members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way

8) Direct pressure to conform for members who pose questions or question the group’s actions

Risks of Blind Loyalty

We’ve seen many groups led by really smart people – and the people who lead the Zoo are really smart people – who value loyalty and agreement so much that groupthink becomes part of the organizational culture. We’re not saying that we know enough about the inner workings of the Zoo to say that groupthink is at work, but enough of the “symptoms” have been seen in the past few years to concern some of its staunchest supporters.

That said, it is a considerable risk for any company, organization, or government. It can be seen in the loyalty to the organization over individuals in scandals from pedophilia in the Church to scheming to hide accurate emissions results at Volkswagen to the old leadership at Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority which treated all requests for transparency as personal attacks.

Over time, the fortress mentality of “us against them” ultimately becomes an act of self-destruction for the organization by the very people who believe that they are the ones who care the most about it. The worst part is that in time people move on but the damage to the institution can live for a generation.

No one is more grateful than we are for the contributions that the Zoological Society has made in turning a humble local zoo into a truly outstanding one with a national reputation. That’s why we are not so much angry as we are saddened by the way that it has misplayed the controversy about greensward parking and misread the context around it.

Lessons of History

After all, if the history of Overton Park tells us anything, it is about how the commitment of a group of citizens protected the park. It was the public that stopped an interstate from plowing through the park, and the public continues to revere the role that the 342 acres have played in the history of Memphis and what they can mean to the future of the city.

Once again, it feels like the public is fighting to protect Overton Park from cars. This time around, the controversy is not playing out in federal court but the court of public opinion, and to anyone with an ear to the ground, it’s clear that the zoo is losing the battle and now risks losing the war.

It’s stunning that in removing the trees, the Zoo was tone deaf to the lingering feelings that resulted from the removal of four acres of the Old Growth Forest for zoo expansion, or that it was blind to the contradiction that exists when its mission inside the zoo focuses on conservation while it does just the opposite outside the zoo in the park.

That it believes that its actions to remove greensward trees are ratified by an opinion by the attorney for the Memphis City Council at the 11th hour of the last day of the Wharton Administration and the former City Council should be cold comfort to the Zoo. More than anything, the opinion has the markings of a going away present to politically connected supporters from the “old” City Hall as they walked out the door.

Public Responsibilities

From where we sit, if there is to be any opinion that has the weight of City of Memphis behind it, it is opinion of the city attorney himself. After all, the city attorney is not an advocate for a specific group of clients. Instead, his job is to deliver opinions that apply to all departments of city government and that are given without fear or favor. Too often, in recent years, attorney’s opinions for the City Council have been treated as if they are the official legal positions for city government, but in fact, we believe that is not the case and that the city charter makes it so.

The American Society of Landscape Architects has pointed out that a prime opportunity for cities to create more parks is to turn parking lots into green space. That the zoo has done the reverse for so many years speaks to how out of step that attitude is today and the lack of attention before now to finding solutions speaks to an inability to deal with an issue before it festers into a crisis.

In the past, the Wharton Administration responded to calls for an investment in a zoo parking garage by saying “the City is not in a position to participate financially.” And yet, time after time, money from city government has been there for high-profile, private projects.

About 19 months ago, the Wharton Administration said a possible solution to the zoo’s parking problem could be a four-level parking garage costing $5 million, which means that if the city issued bonds for that amount, the yearly bond costs would be about $380,000 a year for 20 years.  While the Wharton Administration tended to treat this as a cost that the Conservancy should address, it’s seems to us that this is a city government responsibility – paying for a garage for a city-owned zoo in a city-owned park.

Public Support

As for high-profile projects, nothing is more high-profile than Overton Park, and it’s impossible to argue with Tina Sullivan, executive director of the Overton Park Conservancy, when she says the Zoo’s removal of trees is “unacceptable.” In fact, she displayed admirable restraint in her choice of that word.

But here’s the thing: Overton Park is owned by the people of Memphis. Those same people, through their tax dollars, are this year providing $3,171,017 from the City of Memphis operating budget to the Memphis Zoo, they are paying $250,000 yearly in capital improvements funding for major maintenance (an amount with annual debt service of about $21,250 a year), and they pay debt service on the $5 million in capital improvement money invested in the Zambezi River project which amounts to about $375,000 a year.

Then, too, about $9 million a year of the $17-18 million in revenues of the zoo are visitor-related revenues (tickets, concessions, parking, etc.). The zoo contends that greensward parking accounts for about $1 million a year.

In other words, there is a lot riding on the public’s good will toward the Zoo. Whether it can modify its “our way or the highway” reflexes and communicate with the public will be a test of its leadership that at this point could be even more crucial than the impressive job it’s done in raising money for zoo improvements.

Reaching Out

Meanwhile, the Overton Park Conservancy has done an exemplary job of reaching out to the community to get ideas for what they want at Overton Park and then acting on them. As a publicly-owned asset that attracts about one million people a year – the majority of whom come from Memphis – the zoo would take a big step if it would do the same.

Communications is not weakness. Outreach is not defeat. No one benefits if the current controversy deepens with everyone taking hardened positions.

Hopefully, calmer heads will prevail, and it seems to us that after a couple of years of threatening letters to the mayor of Memphis, intemperate public comments, and now the removal of trees, the ball is in the Zoo’s court.

Our only hope is that this time it doesn’t fumble the opportunity.


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