For as long as we can remember, the Memphis City Council has had the lowest approval rating in polling about local elected officials and governmental bodies.
Those ratings have been aggravated in recent years by declining public confidence in government generally, and we had hoped that the infusion of new faces and energy on the City Council would be the opportunity for it to reestablish itself as the place where citizen/elected officials are closely in touch with the public, and most of all, value citizen input and engagement.
It’s a hope that could end up being merely wishful thinking.
That’s because City Council has scheduled an executive session – a closed to the public discussion of public business – for tomorrow, and the subject is Overton Park. Reliable reports suggest that the Council may inject itself and enflame the ongoing debate about greensward parking by the Memphis Zoo. Apparently, the main idea is to give the zoo control of the greensward, but conversations have gone so far as to suggest eliminating the agreement with the nationally praised Overton Park Conservancy altogether.
Many Reasons – Here Are Six
There are so many reasons this is a half-baked idea, but here are a few of them.
One, there’s no basis for this to be discussed in a secret executive session meeting. (Update: City Council office says the meeting will be open to the public. That’s good news, considering that there was a conversation about closing it and one City Councilman acknowledged it to The Commercial Appeal.)
Two, it would violate separation of authority in city government between the executive and legislative branches. Greensward is part of a contract with the Conservancy, and according to the city charter, contracts are clearly the responsibility of the mayor.
Three, it would be motivated by a desire to curry favor with prominent zoo benefactors and would be employing the same heavy-handed approach that the zoo itself has mastered.
Four, the Council tradition that members should acquiesce to the wishes of the Council member where a park, road, project, etc., is located should be irrelevant when talking about a legacy park in Memphis that is owned and used by people from all over the city.
Five, Council action would defy fair play, coming in the midst of mediation requested by Mayor Jim Strickland, a lawsuit filed by the zoo asking a judge to agree with its position about greensward parking, and a parking plan funded by the Conservancy that is soon to be released.
Six, the damage to City Council’s standing in the community would come at precisely the time when high public confidence is needed as it tackles issues like budgets, taxes, blight, pension obligations, business incentives, and more.
Divine Right Rules
That the zoo – a valuable public amenity for this city despite being unaffordable to a large percentage of Memphis families – has the power and the tunnel vision to drive such a bald exercise of legislative power for the few rather than the many speaks to how far it has fallen from its once lofty perch in this community.
All of us should be saddened by how blindly the zoo has put at risk more than a century of good will to get its way. Its public statements have been cantankerous and divisive, its public actions have been self-centered, and its refusal to participate in public processes to find parking solutions has spotlighted its “my way or the highway” attitude.
The zoo’s inability to comprehend why many people think a park should not be a parking lot speaks to the entrenched sense of entitlement that has developed there. It defies explanation because the zoo foundation is comprised of people who are smart, concerned about the city, and generous in their support for its exhibits.
And yet, in the process of moving a fine local zoo into one of regional importance, it has developed a sense of divine right and manifest destiny when it comes to Overton Park. In the zoo’s thinking, carving out part of the old forest and turning the greensward into a parking lot are perfectly acceptable because no one is more important at Overton Park than the zoo – not even the public who own the park and the zoo.
Great Parks Aren’t Parking Lots
A report by Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence said: “Throughout much of the country, this is a golden age for signature urban parks. From Boston to Houston, New York to San Francisco, Atlanta to Pittsburgh to St. Louise to Detroit, beautiful old destination parks are being renewed…” As Jeff Speck, city planner and author, said in 2014 while standing in Tom Lee Park downtown: “No great urban park has parking lots in them.”
Meanwhile, here, confronted with the opportunity to become part of this national park movement, the zoo and some Council members would rather argue that parking cars is what a park is for.
Here’s the thing: any Council member who doesn’t appreciate the value and impact of the Conservancy has amnesia. We can remember full well the ragged, uncared for state of the park when it depended solely on City Council funding for its upkeep. Come to think of it, budgets approved by Memphis City Council have given the city a park system ranked #67 out of the 75 largest U.S. systems.
In other words, at a time when City Council should prove it is committed to providing quality parks to the public, it is on the verge of an action that deteriorates the queen of Memphis parks. It wouldn’t bode well for Dr. Martin Luther King Riverside Park, which should be considered for a conservancy of its own, or neighborhood parks where the need for loving care has long been obvious.
If anything, the Conservancy should be thanked by City Council – rather than slapped – for its many improvements to the park and its plan to make things even better in the future.
Council Should Be Uniters
The people who use Overton Park and oppose greensward parking have been portrayed as a group of midtown white Memphians. It’s an opinion belied by a visit to the park itself, because there’s no place in Memphis that is more common ground and more diverse than Overton Park.
This has also been portrayed as a fight between influential white people on one side against influential white people on the other side. That’s not true either, but Council members from all parts of Memphis should be concerned that if residents’ opinions can’t influence and protect Memphis’ central park, there’s little reason to imagine that voices will be heard when they come from long neglected parts of the city.
Herein is the greatest irony of all. Cities across the country are acting on successful plans of action for the future that are build on the foundation of citizen engagement. Here, we’re a lot better at talking the talk than walking the walk; however, City Council members have the real opportunity to demonstrate that they are committed to it by taking stands as uniters rather than dividers.
That begins with a refusal to enflame the Overton Park greensward parking debate and to encourage solutions that befit a mature, confident major league city. These kinds of solutions are being found in city after city where an attraction in a park attracts a rush of visitors. There’s no reason we can’t do the same here, but we begin by listening to everyone, not just to the powerful.
Winning A Battle, The War Escalates
At the end of the day, the Memphis Zoo might even win this battle through the intervention of Memphis City Council, but it is likely to lose the war as a result of squandering its standing in Memphis.
Because of it, its funding in City of Memphis budget – $3.2 million this year plus debt service on a $5 million contribution to Zambezi River project – is now likely to attract opposition rather than enjoying the pro forma approvals it has received during the Wharton Administration as its funding increases resulted in $5 million more to its budgets. In that way, a victory for the zoo will be transitory because the damage that it has done to itself will last a generation.
The greensward parking question has been a test of the zoo’s leadership, and it failed.
That test of leadership now shifts to Memphis City Council. We can only hope they will rise to the opportunity.
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