The cold war between Memphis Zoo officials and Overton Park advocates sparked last week, igniting a blaze that roared all over social media and culminated in a Saturday protest even as Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland called for calm.
The Zoo uses the park's Greensward, a large field next to Rainbow Lake, for overflow parking about 65 days a year. A group called Get Off Our Lawn (GOOL) called for the practice to end when they formed in 2014 and staged a number of sit-in style protests on the Greensward.
The latest episode began as Overton Park Conservancy (OPC) officials discovered last Monday that 27 trees had been removed from a strip of land on the park's Greensward that borders the Zoo parking lot. They called the Memphis Police Department and later found out that the Zoo removed the trees to make way for more parking on the Greensward ahead of the opening of the Zambezi River Hippo Camp this year.
OPC Director Tina Sullivan called this move "completely unacceptable." GOOL renewed its pledge to end Greensward parking. They held a protest, which involved a tree planting, at the park on Saturday.
Through it all, Zoo officials maintained they had solid legal footing for the removal, thanks to an opinion city attorney Allan Wade issued on New Year's Eve. Wade said the Zoo does, indeed, control the northern parcel of the Greensward that it uses for overflow parking.
"This action was not illegal in any way, as the property is ours to maintain as upheld by the recently released legal opinion from the city of Memphis," Zoo officials said in a statement on Facebook late last week.
However, Strickland said Wade's opinion doesn't speak for his administration. He's given park and Zoo leaders two months to figure out a parking plan, or Strickland has said he'll devise and implement one on his own. In the meantime, Strickland urged calm.
"We've asked both parties not to take any actions that would inflame the situation," Doug McGowen, the city's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "Both have agreed to do that. We know this won't be fixed overnight. We ask that the community give us the time to reach a solution that works for everyone — most importantly, the people who use the park and the Zoo."
Zoo board members apparently approved a the commencement of a lawsuit over the weekend to determine if the Zoo does, indeed, have legal authority over the portion of the Greensward it uses for overflow parking.
Sullivan, director of the OPC, said last week her office was close to hiring a consultant to conduct a parking and traffic study for Overton Park.
"We are confident that several immediate, achievable, and affordable alternatives to Greensward parking already exist," Sullivan said. "These alternatives will be thoroughly explored, vetted, and refined over the coming months in an open and transparent process that engages all park stakeholders."
The Zoo reiterated past positions that the Greensward is only used 65 days a year and that the Zoo is the top tourist attraction in the Memphis region. Restricting parking, it has said, will deter visitors.
"We never want to restrict access to our Zoo, and thus, will do whatever we can to ensure that all Zoo-managed property [which they believe includes the Greensward] is accessible and well-maintained throughout the process," the Zoo statement read.