The lingering controversy about Memphis Zoo parking on the greensward seems finally to have run its course. Barring a last minute glitch in fine tuning a few details of the accord approved unanimously by Memphis City Council, the two and a half years’ dispute has been resolved.
All in all, the controversy could not have come at a worse time for Memphis emerging new brand. More and more, as we wrote in a recent Thrillist commentary, Memphis is recalibrating its national image from a slow-moving Southern city to one known for its distinctive outdoor recreation and green spaces.
And yet, in the midst of this historic repositioning, Memphis was mired in an argument about whether parkland is best used as a park or a parking lot. It once again resulted in Memphis looking stuck in time, because as cities around the U.S. were betting on the power of parks, it suggested that Memphis failed to recognize their impact on quality of life, talent retention and recruitment, and health outcomes.
In a sentence, parks are a basic to a great city, and to paraphrase Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, there’s really no reason that they shouldn’t be brilliant.
All that said, there were some clear winners and losers in the great greensward controversy:
Overton Park Conservancy
In truth, inside City Hall when the Conservancy group was created, the motivation was primarily about shifting city costs to a private management group in hopes of better operations and maintenance for Memphis’ great city park. With Memphis park budgets stagnating or reducing, it was about a Conservancy paying to make the park cleaner, more visually appealing, and more vibrant. Few would have predicted at the time that the Conservancy would come to display the kind of advocacy that would ultimately pit it against the power of the Memphis Zoo and by extension, Memphis City Council.
Few board members have ever had more pressure from influential Memphians directed at them than the Conservancy board, but under the Zen-like leadership of Conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan, the organization not only withstood it but produced the most significant victory since Shelby Farms was protected from commercial development. It’s difficult to praise Ms. Sullivan too much. With complaints sometimes coming from both sides, she remained calm, confident in her cause, and gifted in her ability to articulate why the park matters to every citizen of Memphis.
It was widely expected that the Conservancy would take it on the chin when the final peace accords with the zoo were reached, and while the agreement has been called a compromise, from where we sit, the Conservancy – or put more accurately, the public – were the winners. Best of all, there is now a solid constituency and a powerful momentum behind the Conservancy’s vision for a really great urban park in the center of Memphis.
We’ve written about this in the wake of the mayor’s greensward decision, so we won’t belabor it again here, but the mayor in six months was able to achieve what was thought to be unachievable: reaching a decision that would be supported by both the Conservancy and the Zoo. The back story in reaching this milestone – with its internal and external politics – is more interesting than we can imagine, and it is a testament to a skill he honed as a city legislator that Mayor Strickland was able to pull it off. There were few people who predicted that he would make the politically gutsy decision that he made in bringing this issue to a close and to do it without incurring any serious political cost, and yet, he did just that.
Councilman Bill Morrison
We’ve made no secret over the years of our admiration for Councilman Bill Morrison. Several years ago, we described him as a calm consensus builder, bridge builder, and conscientious leader, and those descriptors seemed especially apt in light of his pivotal role in producing an agreement that led to a 13-0 City Council approval. More than anything, Mr. Morrison is a statesman. Time after time, he is willing to exercise his leadership outside his own district for the good of the entire city, a characteristic on display once again with the greensward agreement. There are details left to be ironed out, but no one is more aware of the political equity that he has on the line than Councilman Morrison. That’s why there is the hope that the agreement will be implemented ahead of its 2019 execution date, so it will be resolved before the city elections scheduled late in that same year for mayor and City Council.
Council Members Martavius Jones and Patrice Robinson
At a time when most Council members were unwilling to consider that the Zoo’s hard-nosed position might not be the right one, Councilman Jones was not cowed by the show of political force that led to the Council unwisely getting involved in this issue in the first place and stubbornly treating the zoo’s position as inviolate. In addition, Patrice Robinson gets kudos for trying to get answers to questions at a point when the vast majority of City Council were content with the zoo’s misinformation.
Stop Hurting Overton Park
There were several social media groups fighting for the greensward, but Stop Hurting Overton Park ultimately became the primary conduit for information and mobilization. As the creator of the 6,000-member Delta Does Memphis Facebook group a few years, we understand full well the careful balancing act that falls on the leader of this kind of grassroots effort, and from our perspective, Eric Gottlieb should write the book about this (with chapters by John Slater and others who kept the conversation rooted in the facts and provided context for opinions that had influence and by those who daily posted the inconsistencies and stubborn determination by the zoo to stick its finger in the eye of park advocates).
Overton Park Alliance and Citizens to Preserve Overton Park
In that same book, there should be a chapter about the Overton Park Alliance, convened and led by the indomitable Mary Wilder. The fight in the beginning between park lovers and the zoo was hardly fair, but the organization of the Alliance helped level the playing field considerably. Most of all, it proved again how powerful community organizing can be in speaking truth to power. It was an impressive group of organizations that included Evergreen Historic, Midtown Action Coalition, VECA, Park Friends, Parkway House, Belleair Woods, Memphis Heritage, Stop Hurting Overton Park, Hein Park Neighborhood, Midtown Memphis Development Corp, Humans of Overton Park, Cooper–Young Community Association, Free Parking Brigade, Bellaire Woods, East End Neighborhood, Morningside Place, Central Gardens, Tucker Jefferson, and Physicians for Urban Parks (which brought a distinctive voice and expertise to the debate). That said, a solid foundation had been set early by Naomi Van Tol and Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, who have been leading the fight about the greensward back to the days when the city engineer wanted to turn it into a flood retention basin.
Levitt Shell, Brooks Museum of Art, et al
While they were often ignored in the parking discussion, other major users of the park have dealt with parking problems for years and encountered their own refusals from the zoo to discuss the issue cooperative. They have been watching the controversy closely, and the agreement also eases the parking pressures for them as well.
The history of Memphis is replete with chapters of grassroots activism, but more often than not, they were unable to achieve their objectives, dissipating in the face of recalcitrant political interests that wore them down and stretched out the process until the opposition was fatigued and fractured. Social media have changed this, because of its ability to attract more people more quickly to a cause and to communicate more effectively. All that said, it’s worth remembering that the most celebrated chapters of civic activism have involved parks – stopping the interstate from destroying Overton Park, stopping the development of Shelby Farms, and stopping the interstate through the riverfront parks. All in all, it’s a lesson that public officials should remember.
± No Change
Memphis City Council
It’s a close call to put City Council into a category that suggests it neither improved or diminished its position as a result of the greensward controversy. After all, it’s original hard-edged intrusion into the issue (based on a highly questionable legal opinion by the Council’s attorney) did nothing so much as solidify the Council’s traditionally negative poll results. The demeaning treatment by a majority of City Council of park advocates and greensward supporters presented the legislative body at its worst, and its tendency to cavalierly accept Zoo information merely enflamed the controversy. On the plus side, it was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet for park advocates, and in the end, it helped fuel a sense of urgency and brought more supporters to the cause.
In the end, Council finished in the right place, voting unanimously to end greensward parking (albeit it by 2019). All in all, it seems that the midtown and East Memphis Council members may have effectively mended fences enough for this to not be an issue in the next city election but the comments and attitude by Berlin Boyd will undoubtedly follow him in the coming years. Finally, as mentioned above, Council members Jones and Robinson can look for new supporters and contributors from the advocates as a result of their handling of the issue.
New Parks Director
New City of Memphis director of parks and neighborhoods, María Muñoz-Blanco, formerly the executive director of cultural affairs at Miami-Dade College, will find life easier without the greensward controversy dominating park issues in Memphis. With a background more in cultural affairs, she needs more time to familiarize herself and assess the city parks system and return it to its former position as one of the nation’s best.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe – much less understand – how a much-loved Memphis institution could have handled this controversy so poorly. From its opening stance that essentially said the park existed for its use to its misguided missives as the issues unfolded, the zoo’s heavy-handed responses to concerns raised by the park lovers cast it as Goliath against David, but it was nothing short of incredulous that Zoo President Chuck Brady would turn his truculent attitudes toward Mayor Strickland himself.
From beginning to end, Mr. Brady hardened sides, and in causing even zoo supporters to shake their heads at his behavior. It’s hard to see that he can continue to wield as much power within the walls of the zoo as he has in the past. Meanwhile, Richard Smith, board member and scion to the founder of FedEx, walked the tightrope of loyal zoo board member while encouraging compromise through his considerable political connections. Individually, he belongs in a higher category than this one, and based on his influential support for the compromise, he is seen as reason to hope for more enlightened zoo leadership as things move ahead.
The decisive action by Mayor Strickland to end the greensward controversy in six months did the legacy of the Wharton Administration no favors. For about two years before Mr. Strickland took office, the issue begged for a decision, but it had been characterized by stops and starts and by shifting points of view. Mr. Strickland complained during the mayoral campaign that the Wharton Administration was indecisive and told everyone what they wanted to hear. With the greensward resolution, he had his chance to prove how he and his administration are different, and he took it.
The overall coverage by television news too often failed to provide balance and defaulted to its simplistic meme that the greensward parking opponents were a group of well-to-do midtown liberal activists who were devoting too much time to an issue that was not largely relevant to a city with more serious issues confronting it. It is a pitfall of local TV journalism that it frequently reports one side of an issue – especially when it is delivered by a well-oiled PR machine or when it is an institutional point of view, but the editorial comments by some news anchors during newscasts were simply unprofessional and unconscionable. This inclination surfaced regularly when TV reporters repeated the Zoo’s point of view without a countervailing opinion from the Conservancy, Alliance, or Facebook group (which was easy enough to get). It’s a slant seen often when grassroots activism is the topic, whether it’s greensward parking or Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, the insights of The Commercial Appeal’s Chris Herrington and David Waters reminded us often of why print journalism still matters in this city, as did Toby Sells of Memphis Flyer and the ever dependable Bill Dries of Memphis Daily News.
In the earliest days of the parking controversy, the people protesting Zoo parking on the greensward were met with snarky comments questioning their motivations and motives and pounded with suggestions that they were obsessed with the park at the expense of more worthy concerns (despite the fact that so many of the protesters were involved in all kinds of civic and social causes in Memphis). In time, these kinds of comments decreased, most of all as a result of the Facebook group’s willingness to engage in open conversations with those who disputed their priorities.
The final agreements ending zoo parking calls for the Zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy to split the costs of the improvements. That appears inequitable considering that the zoo’s budget is about 15 times larger than the conservancy’s. A fairer division of costs would be based on the proportional size of the budgets for both organizations. Requiring the Conservancy to pay the same amount as the zoo does nothing so much as take money out of the budget that will be needed to achieve the Conservancy’s vision for the park.
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