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New parking plan restores Greensward, forest

GreenswardToday Overton Park Conservancy, along with our partners at Memphis Zoo and the City of Memphis, is proud to announce a permanent solution to the Zoo’s parking needs that not only preserves the entire Overton Park Greensward, but restores 17 acres of mostly forested parkland that has been inaccessible for decades.

The new plan, which has been approved by both the Conservancy and Zoo boards of directors, would move the Zoo’s current maintenance area to the park’s southeast corner, making use of existing buildings in the northern portion of what is now the City’s General Services Area. The Zoo’s existing maintenance area, located along N. Parkway, would then be converted into parking. Along with some restriping of the Zoo’s main lot, this reconfiguration would add the 300 spaces the Zoo needs without carving out a portion of the Greensward.

As part of this reorganization of Zoo features, the Zoo’s board of directors has also authorized the 17-acre tract of parkland on its eastern border to be transferred to Overton Park Conservancy’s managed area. This tract includes space behind Rainbow Lake that is currently being used for temporary Zoo exhibits, but it is mostly a continuation of the Old Forest’s wooded ecosystem. When this acreage was added to the Zoo’s managed area in the 1980s, it was originally intended as future exhibit space. Today, all parties recognize that having an old-growth forest in the middle of the urban core is something that sets Memphis apart from any other city in the southeastern United States. Removing the fence that separates this plot from the rest of the forest will allow the Conservancy to remediate the site, identify locations for walking trails, and implement the forest management practices we already undertake in the adjacent 126-acre Old Forest State Natural Area.

Following the creation of the Zoo’s new parking lot, the Greensward will be permanently closed to overflow parking. The Conservancy is exploring the creation of a walking path around the perimeter of the Greensward to make the space even more accessible and increase its recreational potential. We’ll also look to remediate soil damage and install some landscaping that serves as a visual barrier between the Greensward and the Zoo parking lots. We’re excited about this opportunity to restore the beautiful vista envisioned by landscape architect George Kessler back in 1901 when he drew up plans for Memphis’s signature park.

Overton Park’s Comprehensive Plan

This new plan took shape as part of Overton Park Conservancy’s comprehensive planning process for the park. As the Conservancy explored ideas for converting the park’s southeast corner into usable parkland, the City learned that costs for building a parking deck above the Zoo’s Prentiss Place lot were far higher than originally estimated. After all parties were unable to identify a funding source for the deck over the past few months, the summer 2022 deadline for moving forward with the plan to convert a portion of the Greensward into parking created an urgent need to explore all possible alternatives. The General Services Area’s existing infrastructure provides the Zoo with a cost-effective solution to its growing maintenance needs, while freeing up land in the heart of the park for the things visitors love: the relaxation and recreation of the Greensward, and the peace and grandeur of the Old Forest.

We acknowledge that this solution represents a departure from the Conservancy’s work to develop the full 13-acre southeast corner for public activities. Over the past several years, our planning process has identified a community desire for more educational programs and deeper ways of connecting to nature. After consulting with park stakeholder groups, the consensus was that keeping the Greensward intact and making the Old Forest whole took priority over developing a suite of new attractions at the southeast corner. Work on the park plan will continue with this new configuration in mind, as Overton Park Conservancy integrates plans for the Rainbow Lake area with the adjacent acreage of the Greensward, forest, and the buffer area between them. We’re optimistic that many of the nature-based programming ideas that surfaced in the planning process can also be realized from other locations in the park.

Under the new plan, the Zoo maintenance facility will comprise approximately 6 acres of the northern portion of the General Services Area after City staff relocates in 2023. The remainder of the site will fall under the Conservancy’s management as originally planned. We’ll likely add a new trailhead into the Old Forest here, and in the short term a portion of this area will be dedicated to adding new parking for the increasingly well-used east side of the park. It could also be used as a base for a parking shuttle used by all the organizations operating in the park. (This shuttle would operate only on exterior surface roads, not within the boundaries of the Old Forest.) The southern portion of the property, which contains several functioning greenhouses, will continue to operate in its current format for the time being, with the option for the Conservancy to develop programming there in the future.

A Team Effort

The team at Overton Park Conservancy is so grateful to the many people who lent their time and efforts to answering the three-decades-old question of how to balance the growing demands on both parking and park use. Mayor Strickland’s leadership has been essential to uniting all parties around a practical and creative solution, and we thank both him and Doug McGowen for the work they put into this project over the past several years. Councilman Jeff Warren was a champion for continuing to pursue a solution that preserved the Greensward. Zoo President Jim Dean and the Zoo’s board of directors were willing to continue working on a compromise even as time ran out to create a plan that would spare the Greensward. We also thank the Assisi Foundation, the Hyde Family Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis for their support of the park planning process that helped unlock the potential of this plan.

Finally, we are so grateful to all the park advocates who devoted their voices, talents, time, and financial support to the belief that free, welcoming green space in the heart of Memphis is absolutely essential. We share this celebration with all of you.

This solution benefits all visitors to Overton Park, whether they’ve come to see the hippo camp or have a picnic. We are proud that after more than three decades of efforts to balance the needs of two beloved local attractions, our organizations have come together to create a plan that sees them as parts of a united whole.

Park feature map