There are three proposals for zoo parking in Overton Park and we need a fourth, because all three of the officially submitted proposals are fatally flawed – they all unnecessarily devour three acres of parkland.

There’s little wonder that a revolt to the parking options is bubbling beneath the surface, hoping for a signal that a more context sensitive design is forthcoming.

Mayor Jim Strickland may again need to defuse a controversy as he did back in the heady days when he brought everyone to the table.  Here’s what we wrote July 1, 2016, in “Mayor’s Decision on Greensward Major Step In Right Direction”:

“It could well be that we look back to today’s decision regarding zoo parking on Overton Park’s greensward as the seminal moment when we came face-to-face with the brand of leadership that Jim Strickland brought to the mayor’s office.  All in all, his decision was a gutsy political call and flew in the face of most predictions of what he would do. Rather, his recommendation had the earmarks of a man who’s getting more and more comfortable with his responsibilities and who’s willing to defy conventional wisdom to make a clear, definite decision to protect the greensward as parkland, not parking land.”

More Than A Parking Lot

The proposed designs for zoo parking risk controversy boiling over at a time when civic comity should characterize the coming 17 months as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and the bicentennial of Memphis itself.

The design proposals that have been presented satisfy the numerical requirements set out in the Memphis City Council resolution but it also includes the so-called “ring road” that runs along the southern seam between the parking lot and the park.  This design looks like it got off on the wrong foot from the beginning, because it has a worriesome similarity to one drafted by the city engineering department before an outside engineering consultant was hired.

The proposed alignment also means that people walking eastward on Overton Park Avenue, who now have a view of majestic trees, will instead be looking into a parking lot.  In addition, the parking lot design infringes into Veterans Plaza with the beloved Doughboy statue made from pennies donated by school children and other monuments to the veterans who gave their lives in America’s wars.

It’s hard for some people to understand the negative reaction by many of us to a design that puts cars entering the parking lot next to people using the greensward, but it’s the equivalent of sticking a finger into the eyes of park lovers.  It also brews a level of distrust, whether accurate or not, that zoo advocates somehow have their thumb on the scales.

Better Ways

Some people who value the zoo’s interest over the park’s don’t have a deep appreciation for the consequences of this lingering distrust.  For some, this has been about winning the battle.  But meanwhile, it risks losing the war by seeding distrust so deep that we pay the price in other issues that Memphians must address together in the coming months.  In this way, the fundamental question is much greater than who is winning.  Rather, the overriding question is how can a parking design solution achieve consensus to create shared values and support.

At this point, the proposals are being reviewed by the Strickland Administration, which has the discretion to make adjustments to designs that can best be described in one word: old-fashioned.

That adjective is particularly apt for the “ring road” configuration.  It apparently is designed with the long entry road into the parking lot as a way to reduce “stacking,” or the lengthy line of cars on the zoo’s busiest days.   There are more up-to-date engineering options.

Old School All Around

That said, old-fashioned also describes the zoo’s approach to parking generally.  There are uses of technology that can speed up entry into the parking lot, because the parking fee operation with its kiosk, for one, seems stuck in time.  For example, at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, visitors can pay parking in advance using an app on their smartphones.  Other zoos and major attractions that must deal with a rush of traffic have developed creative operational solutions.

Again, the price for old school engineering and old school technology and operations is three acres of precious parkland.  It is hard not to use the word, indefensible, to describe it.

Already, some greensward protectors have put forward a different design that would not require the use of the three acres and would actually add more parking spaces than the three official proposals.

These same people determined that the originally required dimensions of the parking spaces were excessive and led to the size of the parking spaces being reduced and an increase in spaces.  There was a time when their suggestion about parking space size was dismissed, so we’re hoping that the configuration concept that would reduce the parking lot footprint will also be given serious consideration.


Here’s the thing: it is possible to imagine that someday the zoo could pursue this same design, removing the ring road and absorbing the three acres into additional spaces in a larger parking lot footprint.  For this reason, there should be firm assurance that the ring road is not a Trojan Horse.  As a result, a provision should be adopted that says if the proposed parking lot design is approved but does not achieve its goals in the future, the three acres will be returned to the park.

We are hopeful that officials will see the use of these three acres of parking as wasteful and unnecessary.  When Mayor Strickland wisely conceived of this process, he clearly wanted to inject more common sense and rational thinking into the deliberations about zoo parking.

These are values badly needed now as a final decision is reached on a parking lot configuration that provides the required number of parking spaces but balances this with the priority of protecting parkland.


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