Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Memphis Zoo President Jim Dean and Overton Park Conservancy Executive Director Tina Sullivan announced a new agreement for expanded zoo parking Tuesday afternoon that saves the beloved stretch of Overton Park lawn known as the Greensward.
Instead of expanding 2.4 acres into the Greensward for new parking spaces, the zoo has ditched the effort and, instead, the current zoo maintenance area will be converted to zoo member parking and zoo maintenance workers will relocate to the city’s maintenance center off East Parkway, Strickland said Tuesday.
“It also provides both the Conservancy and the zoo the opportunity to avoid spending for what has become almost a $2.5 million expansion of the existing lot,” Strickland said. “So that’s money saved and preserves those funds for other purposes. You will see changes as soon as this fall when some of the lines of demarcation start to change.”
That zoo maintenance area will be reconfigured to include 300 parking spaces for members, with an opportunity to “go vertical” as Dean puts it.
“That maintenance lot (on East Parkway) will be cleaned and paved,” Dean said. “And then, if we needed to, in the future as we add more more facilities to the zoo — and if attendance dictates that — we would build up a structure there.”
The exodus of city maintenance staff and entrance of zoo maintenance staff will take place over the next two years according to Councilman Jeff Warren, who lives near the zoo and park.
“I’m really pleased to know that in two years, we will not see cars parking on the Greensward,” Warren said. “What we’re going to pay for, as citizens, allowing the zoo to have overflow parking, when they need it, for the next two years until we can get this done. So everyone should realize that’s going to occur, but we have a solution for the long haul.”
The debate surrounding the decision to encroach on the Greensward dates to 2016, when the zoo announced it needed more parking spaces. The expansion was met with protestors and the launch of the “Save the Greensward” campaign that swept through Midtown.
That plan was scrapped in 2019, when Jim Dean took over as president and announced a parking garage would be constructed in the parking lot off McLean instead. Ultimately, the parking structure was scrapped in favor of the 2.4-acre expansion into the Greensward in October.
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The new agreement — which was spurred by continuous conversations between the city, zoo and park — will return between 20 and 25 acres of land to the Overton Park Conservancy, including h are 17 acres of the Old Forest State Natural Area and the currently fenced- off portion of Rainbow Lake.
Along with the returning acreage, the Memphis Zoo will provide Overton Park Conservancy with $400,000 to assist in maintenance efforts as well as the creation of a new recreational area at the southeastern end of the park and new trails that will be placed throughout the park.
“We’re proud that after more than three decades of efforts to balance the needs of these two beloved institutions, or organizations have come together to create a plan that sees them as part of a united hole,” Sullivan said.
The berm will now be the border between Overton Park’s Greensward and the Memphis Zoo’s main lot, marking an end to any possible encroachment. Along that border will be a perimeter walking path that circles the edge of the Greensward.
Lucas Finton is a news reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.