The Memphis City Council approved a resolution Tuesday that will give control of the majority of the Overton Park Greensward to the Memphis Zoo in the face of dozens of citizens at Memphis City Hall who asked them postpone the vote.
Council members argued that Overton Park is used by citizens from all over Memphis and that the Greensward should not be protected for Midtowners. The resolution passed with only council member Martavius Jones voting against it. Council member and ex-officio zoo board member Bill Morrison was absent.
City council attorney Allan Wade pointed to the fact that a high number of Memphians outside Midtown come to the Memphis Zoo during its free day. That access, he said, would be hampered if the zoo did not have the access to the Greensward for overflow parking.
“You should make a decision to benefit the greatest amount of people not just a small amount of people surrounding the park,” Wade said.
Council member Berlin Boyd, a sponsor of the resolution, said a lot of the visitors of the zoo’s free day come from his district. That was why, he said, he sponsored the measure.
“All citizens deserve the right to attend the zoo and they deserve access to the park,” Boyd said, noting that the city has issues with “disparities” and “disenfranchisement.”
Wade said the council had the right to make the decision. Also, he said passing the resolution would allow the Overton Park stakeholders to come up with parking and traffic solutions.
“The obvious dispute that continues to fester and divide our community, you have the ability to end it tonight and let the parties continue to discuss it,” Wade said.
Worth Morgan, council member for the district which encompasses Overton Park, offered two amendments to the resolution. The first will not let the zoo to remove shrubs or trees from the Greensward without city council permission. The second cut Rainbow Lake from the zoo’s control in the resolution. Morgan was told that the zoo had already ceded four acres in the south part of the Greensward, including the lake and the playground. Both were approved in the final legislation.
Morgan said that, with the amendments he put forth, he would support the resolution. Morgan got wide support from citizens speaking before the council vote. That support evaporated into boos and jeers when he said he’d support the resolution.
The noise got so bad that council chairman Kemp Conrad said he’d ask the sergeant-at-arms to remove the next person who jeered.
Morgan said it is a “tough decision” for him but that he wanted a solution for the “next 30 years.”
Council member Patrice Robinson said she hoped the resolution would bring an end to what has been a “difficult road.”
“We do not believe another taxpayer dollar should be spent on court costs and attorneys,” Robinson said. “We want that money spent on your park.”
Citizens packed the council chamber at city hall Tuesday. Dozens of them took to the public microphone for nearly two hours before the council to let council members know that they love the park, they love the zoo, and asked for them to wait on a resolution that would give the zoo control of the Greensward.
The resolution was filed Tuesday morning by council member Reid Hedgepeth and eight other city council members. The council members asked that the resolution be passed that very day.
Many citizens said the tactic seemed “hasty,” “disrespectful of the community,” or even “sneaky.” They said the citizens of Memphis had only hours - many of them while they were at work - to read the resolution and make up their minds about it.
“Could there be a reason that Hedgepeth is pushing this on the same day it was introduced before the citizens have had time to read it, or understand it, and hear anything about it?” questioned June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. “We should not bring this material to a vote without it being vetted by y’all, the council.”
Still, the resolution had nine sponsors, plenty enough to get the seven votes it needed to pass the one vote required of a resolution.
Many citizens reminded council members that a remediation process is ongoing between the zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy (OPC). Also, they reminded council that the OPC is in the midst of a parking and traffic study that could bring solutions to ease traffic and parking in the zoo.
“You see how many are in this room to take a breath and, please, hold this resolution until after the parties have a chance to meet,” said Gene Lorenzi, a resident of the evergreen neighborhood. “Let them try to meet and work this out.”
Many other citizens said that if the council did, indeed, pass the resolution Tuesday that the action would only fan the flame of discord and protest amongst the opposition.
“If you think this turnout tonight is large, you haven’t seen anything yet,” said Bill Stegal, a life-long Memphian. “We will fill this room again, and again, and again.”
OPC execute director Tina Sullivan said her group has tried to work collaboratively with park partners to find solutions. OPC has never, she said, tried to stop temporary Greensward parking since the group was founded in 2012.
She said OPC has raised $6 million since 2012 for capital improvements at the park and general operations. The group raised the funds to create the Rainbow Lake Playground. It has helped get funding to bring a new farmers market to the park. It has built bike routes to connect to the Hamp Line for bikes and installed the now-iconic Bike Gate on the east side of the park along East Parkway.
OPC board member Ray Pohlman, vice president of government relations for AutoZone Inc., said if the council approved the resolution, the parking and traffic study would be “pointless” and he said the approval may have a deeper implication.
“If this council is allowed to to continue with this land-grab technique, corporate and private donors would certainly have second thoughts about city-owned, and public-private endeavors,” Pohlman.