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Greensward Stays Green: Conservancy Head Praises New Deal with Memphis Zoo

The red areas will go to the Overton Park Conservancy for management. The light green areas will be used by the Memphis Zoo.
The red areas will go to the Overton Park Conservancy for management. The light green areas will be used by the Memphis Zoo.

For years, Overton Park preservationists have fought the expansion of the Memphis Zoo's parking lot onto the grassy field in the center of the park.

On Tuesday, the Overton Park Conservancy, the Memphis Zoo and the City of Memphis announced an agreement that would preserve the greensward, create a new parking lot and save part of Overton Park's forest from further zoo development.

WKNO's Christopher Blank spoke with OPC President Tina Sullivan on the deal.

BLANK: The initial response seems pretty positive, but I want to set up the conflict: For years the city and the Memphis Zoo said that really the only way to fix this parking shortage was to pave over about two and a half acres of the greensward. Why did that position finally change?

Sullivan: That was always the easiest solution and the Conservancy was a relatively new organization when that solution was first floated. And I think that we've now had some time to develop as an organization and to develop our relationships with our partners and we have a president the zoo [Jim Dean] who's very partnership and collaboration focused and we have a mayor and an administration who wanted to see the best outcome for Memphis.

This new plan in a way is kind of like a Mad Hatter's tea party. There's a shifting around of some facilities, and moving things, but it looks like this is kind of possible because the city is going to move out one of its maintenance lots on East Parkway. Was that really the impetus for this plan — having free space that the zoo could then move into?

Yes, the city has been talking about moving out of that space for quite some time. And, in fact, Overton Park Conservancy has been working with a design team to plan for that space. It was going to be returned to public park land. It's really a land swap. But it's moving the right kinds of activities in the park to the right place and then preserving the high value recreation spaces in the middle of the park for those uses.

One of the big changes is that the zoo's maintenance area will, I guess, be turned into a parking lot and that will be on North Parkway, and that'll be sort of behind the zoo. Who came up with that idea?

Well actually it had been discussed internally before. The zoo had looked at that option previously. It had been on the table, and it's a really elegant solution because not only does it provide the 300-plus new parking spaces for the zoo, it provides them on a six-lane road that can accommodate the traffic congestion that comes with a really peak day at our very popular zoo. And it's in a really good location to eventually add a parking deck with no controversy, because putting a parking deck on their Prentiss Place lot was not without its own controversy because it was gonna back up to some residential property.

Now, for quite a while we were told that the zoo is supposed to keep getting bigger. It IS a major Memphis tourist attraction and the only place for it to grow would be into the Overton Park forest there. But this new plan appears to lock the zoo in and give even more land to the Overton Park Conservancy. Does this put an end to zoo expansion, at least in the short term?

I believe it does, and I think what we are seeing is the wisdom that comes with [Memphis Zoo President] Jim Dean's experience in managing assets like this. I really appreciate his statement that we don't necessarily need to be the biggest zoo in the country, we need to be the best zoo in the country and this focus on quality rather than acreage, I think what you're going to see is a better zoo experience rather than a broader zoo experience.

And I also just have to say that with this forest acreage that we are now going to be really delving into, I see a lot of opportunity for expanding the existing Overton Park Conservancy and Memphis Zoo partnership. We've already been doing research in that tract of forest together. Our team and the zoo's team have stomped all over that property together and I see that continuing. We will most likely be looking at the flora and fauna of that tract of forest together and doing some shared conservation research.

You know, the story—or I guess you could say the legacy—of Overton Park is one of people versus government. It would not exist if Memphians hadn't stopped the US Department of Transportation from running I-40 through the middle of it. Do you see this new deal as a similar victory?

Yes, and no. So, it's definitely the citizens of Memphis who consistently expressed their desire to see Overton Park preserved and improved. The Conservancy would not exist if that were not true. So to some degree this new wonderful solution reflects the desire of the people of Memphis to protect Overton Park.

But this is not a people versus government scenario at all. This is people working in collaboration with government. This is definitely a solution that has been facilitated by and supported by and made possible by our Mayor Strickland and his administration.

So it's a much easier solution. We didn't have to go through 20 years of litigation to get here. We are actually on the same page today.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.