Memphis has entered into what is arguably an era of great public parks but sadly, it appears  Audubon Park isn’t going to be part of it.

So far, Shelby Farms Park has been transformed into a $70 million urban park.

Tom Lee Park is undergoing a $60 million transformation as centerpiece of five riverfront districts with 250 acres.

Overton Park’s aspirations will soon be captured in a comprehensive plan to be submitted to the public for feedback.

Meanwhile, Audubon Park is treated more as a staging ground for big-ticket City of Memphis tennis and golf projects while the place’s main purpose – as a free public park – receives perfunctory attention.

Regional Parks Are Different

There is the $40 million Leftwich Tennis Center under construction near Southern Avenue at South Goodlett Street and now City of Memphis has announced an $8 million upgrade to the golf course. 

At the same time, only $2.8 million will be spent on what is left in the park that is free, and the plans for it are, in two words, unimaginative and uninspiring. 

That’s because Audubon Park, as a regional park, is being treated as if it’s a neighborhood park.  While neighborhood parks are the backbone of the Memphis park system, they generally follow a regular template and visitors primarily live nearby.  

Regional parks are different.  They serve a dual purpose.  They offer recreational opportunities for the neighborhoods around them, but they are also a draw for people from the entire region.  To do the latter as a regional park, it needs to be a magnet, and to be that, it needs a distinctive personality with high-quality features and options.

For example, Shelby Farms Park is the park of choice for neighborhoods around it but it also draws people from all over the region to enjoy the special facilities there.  The transformed Tom Lee Park will be the neighborhood park for downtown and the four high-poverty zip codes surrounding downtown but it will also attract people from the entire region.

Sister Park To Overton Park

City officials announced Audubon Park would be improved for public use.  That said, the plans indicate they care much more about tennis and golf than families coming there for unique and memorable park experiences that they cannot get in dozens of neighborhood parks in Memphis.

The plans for Audubon Park’s playground feel perfunctory and way too familiar and the additional trails and lighting are modest improvements to a park deserving something better, something that creates emotional attachments for families that visit it just like the other regional parks.

Think Overton Park.  It too is a site for major public amenities – zoo, open-air amphitheater, art museum, golf, and zoo.  However, despite all of these major tenants, Overton Park Conservancy has never forgotten that it’s first and foremost a park and that whatever its future holds, it is to be found in elevating and amplifying that core purpose.

In 1947, Edward Crump, political boss and officeholder when it suited him, wanted a park outside Memphis that would complement Overton Park.  He convinced City of Memphis to buy the old Goodwyn House and 186.5 acres of land for $205,000.  Shelby County Government bought the adjacent 169 acres from the Snowden estate for $195,000. The Goodwyn house was torn down and a golf course and lake were developed on the site. 

Opposition Emerges

Besides not living up to its designation as a regional park, there is also something fundamentally different about Audubon Park.  It is not managed by a conservancy. Shelby Farms Park, Overton Park, and the riverfront parks are, and the conservancies are laser-focused on the future of their respective parks and how they can deliver their maximum impact as welcoming places for Memphis in its full diversity.

Instead, Audubon Park is one of more than 150 parks that are the responsibility of City of Memphis parks division.  It’s a demanding job for parks officials managing that many parks and setting priorities for the $40.3 million budget. 

Mayor Jim Strickland and Memphis City Council deserve credit for the $75 million for parks improvements included in the Accelerate Memphis plan.  However, rather than simply considering how to improve Audubon Park incrementally, the park deserves a dramatic, new vision for what it can be and how it can deserve being called a regional park. 

After all, of its 353 acres, the park function gets a small part of the total.  The golf course at Audubon Park consumes a large park of the acreage.  On Google maps, the location of Audubon Park is even listed this way: Located in the Links at Audubon. 

For park users, this is unfortunately an accurate description of Audubon Park.  It is known more for its tenants than its relatively small green space with plans calling for the sacrifice of even more land for an expanded golf course and a new driving range.

It was this fact that led to the Saving Audubon Park grassroot group opposing the plan, because it leaves little of the park that can be enjoyed without paying for a ticket or a fee – like golf, tennis, Botanic Garden, and Live at the Garden which consumes acres of parkland for parking.

Don’t Waste The Opportunity

Opposition followed the City of Memphis groundbreaking ceremony with many neighborhood residents left out of the planning process and complaining about a lack of transparency.

To their credit, city administration officials admit their serious mistake in not asking for more public input, but in a volatile meeting last week with the public to make up for that oversight, a park official said he was open to other ideas but discouraged any expectations that they would be major.

City officials have said Audubon Park is a regional park.  Because that is so, it is time for it to be treated like one and for the space set aside as free parkland to be improved from a new plan that creates the dramatic and distinctive park facilities it deserves.

While considering changes suggested by the neighborhoods, officials should take a new and more ambitious look at plans for the free parkland.   It would be a wasted opportunity if Audubon Park is not a star in this emerging era of great parks.


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