Now, that wasn’t really so hard, was it?

Now that the Overton Park Conservancy has done the work that more appropriately should already have been done by City of Memphis or the Memphis Zoo years ago, we can only hope that calmer heads will prevail and everyone can finally agree on the steps that can be taken to get parked cars out of the Overton Park greensward.

The primary question at this point is whether there are any calmer heads in the current Zoo hierarchy.  Time after time, they have not only misread the dynamics of the issue but have doubled down in ways that enflamed the situation, brought new opposition into the fray, and ultimately squandered the most precious commodity the zoo has – the public’s good will.

This week’s report by the Conservancy about options for dealing with the parking demands for the zoo and other equally valued tenants of the Park was logical, reasonable, and more than anything, felt like common sense.  That a professional report to the public has been lacking for so long feeds the opinion by many that city politicians have been so blinded by the influence of influential special interests and political contributors that they failed to search for simple solutions that could have long ago been implemented.

There’s Nothing That Can’t Be Done

The report’s recommendations can be divided between the “easily accomplished” and the “more involved,” but any suggestion that they are not implementable is misleading and untrue.

The “easily accomplished” recommendations can add as many as 800 parking spaces during the next two years at the bargain basement cost of $1.7 million.  If more spaces were needed, the “more involved” recommendation is for a parking garage with more than 300 spaces costing $8.55 million (design and construction).

Overton Park Conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan said the report “dispels the notion that we’ve exhausted all solutions,” and that is unequivocally correct.  It’s amazing what reasonable options reasonable people can develop when they are willing to consider all the scenarios for addressing the problem of cars taking up parkland more appropriately used by people actually experiencing the park.

In retrospect, it is staggering how long Zoo officials have adamantly declared that there are no options but greensward parking, but it is more staggering still that city officials acquiesced without any serious examination of the facts of the matter.  Ultimately, we don’t blame the zoo for not developing the options, but its officials certainly should have been sounding the alarm that more parking would be needed rather than thinking they have a divine right to the greensward.

It’s Not A Question Of Money, But Political Will

It’s testament to how influence and power can produce tunnel vision that so easily keeps intelligent public officials from doing their duty, which in this case was to pursue solutions that would protect the park from the kind of environmental pollution that results from serving as a parking lot.

We’ve previously posted the amounts of the appropriations in City of Memphis budgets for the Memphis Zoo and how they increased between 2010 and 2016.  When it took office, the Wharton Administration inherited a budget that included $2,127,000 in operating funds for the zoo, and in the six budgets prepared by the Wharton Administration, zoo funding increased by a cumulative amount over six years of $4.97 million.  The final operating budget prepared by the Wharton Administration, the one that will end June 30 of this year, provided $1,044,017 more than it received when the Administration took office.

Meanwhile, in those six budgets, Memphis Zoo received $4.68 million in capital funding from City of Memphis.

When these amounts are considered within the context of the parking solutions and their costs, it is clear that the Administration abdicated its responsibilities to find solutions while responding to the political influence of the Zoo board to send more money to the private nonprofit organization.

 Leadership Failures

Just consider it: the “easily accomplished” options in the Conservancy’s report cost $1.7 million.   And the annual bond payments for the “more involved” option of an $8.55 million garage are about $684,000 a year.

In other words, the “easily accomplished” options were imminently affordable, and although city government regularly said that it did not have the money for the “more involved” solution – a garage – if parking solutions had received the same capital funding as the zoo did in these six years, the remaining gap in funding would be $3.9 million, an amount that could likely have been raised from private and philanthropic sources.

While city government failed to take action – and in our mind, a parking garage for all of the tenants at Overton Park is the responsibility of city government rather than the Zoo or the Conservancy – the Memphis Zoo pushed ahead with major new projects without developing any better ideas for handling the increased parking than continuing to park more cars on more of the greensward.

The zoo has operated for years on the premise that it could largely do anything it wanted in Overton Park, and even with the creation of the Conservancy – and the increased public use, increased things to do, better maintenance and equipment, and stepped up advocacy – the zoo appeared to bet that its political muscle could make sure that things didn’t change. In fact, it was logical for them to think this since the precipitous and ill-considered action of Memphis City Council to inject itself into the debate proved to the zoo once again that it had not lost any of its power in City Hall.

The Times They Are A’Changin’

In the wake of the Council’s action, the reality of how much the times have changed slapped zoo officials in the face, a shock that could feed their heavy-handed, over-the-top pronouncements, and their unsteady footing on what to do next.  It must be especially infuriating – as it is baffling – to them that a growing group of park advocates that they had so cavalierly dismissed have been able to turn this into a cause celebre that has become symbolic battle for a city that values and is willing to fight for quality, high-functioning public spaces.

Unfortunately, anytime the zoo has had a list of 10 reasonable responses, it has regularly chosen an 11th one that suggested that they had lost touch with the city they claim to serve and the public whose name they invoke to justify each of its actions.

It makes them so tone deaf that they can say without a hint of irony that protestors are undermining Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s ongoing mediation, apparently oblivious to the fact that nothing did this more than their own lawsuit.  Or when they defended their barricades and takeover of the entire greensward as a way to protect park use, again oblivious to the contradiction of protecting the park by denying park users access to the park’s sweet spot, the greensward.

Their actions and their rhetoric would be laughable if they weren’t so disappointing.  Before this controversy escalated, it would have been next to impossible to find any amenity in Memphis that was more loved than the Memphis Zoo, and yet, zoo officials have forfeited a great deal of that love.

It’s been hard to tell if they have simply lost their footing or whether it is merely arrogance, but at this point, it doesn’t matter, because the results are the same.  Because of it, it is the zoo that is paying the heaviest price.

Serve, Now For The Volley

Soon, we’ll learn if Zoo officials have learned anything from their disastrous public relations experiences.  While hope springs eternal, we’ll get an indication of its attitude early on if its leadership defaults to its normal talking points: we know best, we know what our customers want, we’ve already thought about all of this, and a garage is too costly.

While all of this has been unfolding, the “save the greensward” advocates have built up steam, and like the celebrated time when a few citizens with passion and vision stopped an interstate from destroying the park, thousands of citizens with passion and vision are working hard to protect the city’s most beloved park yet again.

The ball is now in the zoo’s court.  Hopefully, this time, its officials will carefully consider their response and not draw another line in the sand.


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.