A Zoo Solution? 

The answer to the Memphis Zoo’s parking dilemma may be just a block away.

click to enlarge Overton Park Greensward - OVERTONPARK.ORG
  • overtonpark.org
  • Overton Park Greensward

Unpopular admission of the day: I'm kind of a cynic about saving the Overton Park Greensward. The Greensward is the parcel of land that sits adjacent to the Memphis Zoo in Overton Park, which has been frequently repurposed as an overflow parking lot on heavy traffic days at the Zoo. It's hard to miss the green yard signs, visible everywhere within the Parkways, that implore us to "SAVE THE GREENSWARD!"

It's not that I'm an advocate of people parking their cars in a place that should be rightly used for hacky sack, pop-up aerobics, and dog-and-frisbee stuff.

Parking is undoubtedly a bad use of Overton Park, which was designed as a space for repose at the turn of the century, part of a national movement for more peaceful urban surrounds. Considerate people should leave their minivans elsewhere and put in the pedestrian time it takes to enjoy the Teton Trek or the Hippo Camp. (Side note: the Zoo should have called this the HippoCampus because, come on, hilarious!) Overton Park may not be the most stunning of American vistas, but it is ours, and we love it, and it would be great if people didn't park their vehicles there.

My generalized apathy about the fate of the Greensward is that the campaign feels frivolous, compared to some of the other objectionable stuff we have going on in this city. I'd be happier in a world where "SAVE THE GREENSWARD!" signs were, if not replaced, at least accompanied by little beseechments to "TEST THOSE RAPE KITS ALREADY!" or "STOP MESSING AROUND WITH PUBLIC EDUCATION!"

I've resolved, though, that the only way to save ourselves the trouble of having to think about the Greensward is to actually save the Greensward. Thankfully there is an easy way to do this, and do it cheaply.

Here's the pitch: Younger Memphians, myself included, may not recall a time when people accessed the Zoo from the eastern side of Overton Park, back before there was that dumb plan to put I-40 through Overton Park. (Credit where credit it due to those not-in-my-backyard crusaders.) This was in the 1970s, when the area that now houses the end of Sam Cooper Boulevard was a neighborhood. People either walked through the park or down N. Parkway, where there used to be a Zoo entrance on a part of the property that now houses an employee parking lot.

Though there are still a few residential streets between Summer and Sam Cooper, this is no longer a viable parking plan. You'd be better off parking in the Evergreen neighborhood or spending time waiting in the cluster of cars that blocks up McClean on low-ozone-warning summer mornings. But the area around the eastern side of the park is about to change: At the beginning of November, the Tennessee Department of Transportation put the eight acres of unused land that sits on either side of the East Parkway/Sam Cooper intersection up for sale. The largest of the lots is just under five acres; the smallest is just over half an acre. No date has been set for the sale, yet, but local media have reported that Loeb Properties has expressed serious interest in acquiring the parcels.

To whomever it may concern: That land, or at least, some of it, should be turned into parking for the Zoo. You could fit 750 parking spots on that five-acre lot. The Zoo could run a shuttle — or a trolley or a beer bike or whatever — in between E. Parkway and its main entrance, allowing visitors to see beautiful wooded areas of the park. George Kessler, the park's designer, who kept company with landscape architecture giants such as Frederick Law Olmsted, would be proud. We would all be relieved.

During chillier seasons, when zebras and humans do not seek each other's company, the land could be used in other ways. We should get imaginative. Maybe take Crosstown Arts' lead and create a cheaply-rentable outdoor space for cook-outs and concerts. Or host roller hockey events and food truck meet-ups or town-hall-style meetings. There are ways that this could be fun, environmentally conscious, and turn a profit.

We need a parking lot. We want more great public spaces. What we don't require is condos. Please. No more condos.

Eileen Townsend is a writer for Memphis magazine and The Memphis Flyer.

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