Turning the Tide 

Facing controversy, the city looks to alternatives for Overton Park detention basin.

Last week, the offices of the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association (VECA) were flooded. In this case, however, the overflow wasn't water but concerned citizens.

People packed VECA's offices as a regular meeting on neighborhood flooding turned into a public hearing about a proposed detention basin in the park's greensward.

The detention basin would be a 12 to13 foot depression designed to stem flooding on nearby Belleair. After a hard rain, city engineers estimate the basin would drain within eight to 10 hours. But park advocates had plenty of problems with the proposal.

"We were very surprised that the city would consider such a huge negative impact on Overton Park," said Naomi Van Tol, one of the founders of the renewed Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. "Obviously, there are a lot of ways to go with storm-water detention. The idea of solving all the problems in Midtown by building a huge detention basin ... Overton Park is too important to be treated the way they're proposing."

At the VECA meeting, city engineer Wain Gaskins argued that park-users would still be able to play Frisbee or exercise their dogs on the greensward.

"We do have to shape some sort of bowl to detain the water, but it's a huge bowl. It's so large you might not notice it being a bowl," he said. "It would be a gentle slope."

As an example, Gaskins pointed to a detention basin at Second Presbyterian Church that is 3 to 4 feet deep and one currently being constructed at Christian Brothers University that will be 6 to 8 feet deep. But considering that the proposed basin in Overton Park would be at least twice that deep, park advocates weren't convinced.

Martha Kelly with Park Friends thinks the impact would be significant, especially on what she considers the most sensitive area of the park.

"It's very squishy for several days after a hard rain at the elevation it is," she said. "If we drop it the level of a two-story building, what do you think it will do?"

She also mentioned concerns about trash washing into the park from an overflowing Lick Creek, the basin becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and crime.

"When a crowd of people come out, the park is safe. People are there at dawn; people are there at dusk," she said. "If it becomes unusable because of the basin, we won't have the people there and crime will come back."

Kelly and others have proposed several ideas, including a water hazard on the golf course, several smaller detention basins along MLGW greenways, letting Lick Creek overflow into the park's old-growth forest, and permeable concrete parking at the Memphis Zoo and Overton Square.

Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. A 2006 report commissioned by the city looked at several remedies, including underground storage beneath Overton Square and a detention basin/driving range in part of what is currently (and has been for quite some time) Overton Park's old-growth forest.

"We decided at that time that tree removal was not the way to go under any circumstances," said George Cox, city senior design engineer. "We asked where can we go with no trees and started looking at the greensward."

Cox estimates that the move to the greensward added $1 million to the cost of the basin, bringing it up to about $2 million. In the 2006 report, however, no cost estimates were given because "all solution scenarios evaluated for Lick Creek were found to offer no significant benefit. ... Thus, no options for Lick Creek are suggested nor were any economically analyzed."

Cox said the current detention basin proposal would take care of flooding on Belleair and at the Memphis Zoo, but not in Vollintine-Evergreen.

"We were trying to kill two birds with one stone," Cox said of zoo flooding. "The zoo was all for it, as long as they could retail their overflow parking [on the greensward]."

The proposed detention basin seems to be in doubt. City engineering is looking at other alternatives, but Cox could not say what they were.

"To do Belleair Circle, Overton Park is the only place we have to go, short of private property," Cox said. "[Detention basins] are land consumers. They need four to five acres. It's very difficult to split up."

At least one person wonders if the city should try a different approach.

"Midtown is built out," Van Tol said. "Maybe we should look at buy-outs of those homes that flood repeatedly. That money could buy quite a few bungalows in Midtown."

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