When the Memphis Zoo opened its doors in April of 1906, parking wasn’t an issue. Few people owned cars, and most residents rode streetcars that crisis-crossed the city.
But more than 100 years later, parking by zoo visitors is central to ongoing debates among many residents in car-centric Memphis. The 76-acre zoo is the fifth largest in the country, but offers limited parking. Additionally, the need for more parking spaces increases every time the zoo opens a new exhibit.
To alleviate the problem on busy days, zoo administrators allow visitors to park on the Overton Park’s Greensward, a public green space in the heart of the park. The overflow parking angers many Memphis residents, including Kevin Lipe, a Midtown resident and supporter of the Get Off our Lawn committee.
“It’s almost absurd that we have to even explain this position,” Lipe said. “I don’t know any other city that would take the biggest park in the middle of their city and not allow people to use it on nice days so people could park cars on it.”
With the recent opening of a $22 million hippo exhibit, supporters of the Get Off our Lawn committee and members of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park worried the problem was only going to get worse.
But on April 29, the same day of the exhibit opening, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced both sides are working on an agreement that would allow 325 parking spaces outside of the Greensward.
But Lipe said 325 extra spaces won’t fix the problem, and more solutions need to be made because the zoo is always expanding and people will continue to park on the Greensward. Parking a car at the zoo costs $5 a day.
“We’ve come up with a list of compromises like a shuttling service, but it doesn’t seem like the zoo was receptive to those solutions,” Lipe said. “There is a lack of will on the zoo’s part to do anything that’s going to cost them time and money when they can just park people on the grass and make a profit out of it.”
A shuttling service was just one of the 20 solutions the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park group recommended to the zoo, said Jessica Buttermore, president of the organization.
Other recommendations included allowing visitors to park on neighborhood streets around the zoo and introducing a parking app a visitor could use on a smart phone to check parking availability.
“I do think the zoo is set in their ways,” Buttermore said. “They think because they’ve been able to do this before, it’s not really their responsibility to solve the issue. It’s just disheartening.”
Zoo supporters disagree.
Cody Isbell, 21, a Memphis resident who worked part-time at the zoo selling concessions for three years, said using the Greensward for parking will benefit the city and traffic flow overall, and the zoo wants to use the space solely for that reason.
“The greensward is just an open area. There are still plenty of other places for people to visit in the park,” Isbell said. “By allowing us to turn a part of the park that is not widely used to a parking area, we would increase the efficiency of traffic flow for the city as a whole and increase economical prosperity for the zoo.”
But for several Memphis residents, the Greensward is more than just a section of open land. It holds plenty of intrinsic and sentimental value.
Ally Coyle, a midtown resident who serves on the board of the Overton Park Conservancy, said the ongoing battle between the Memphis Zoo and citizens group must eventually come to an end because the group won’t stop working until they find a solution without parking on the green space. The conservancy is a group committed to finding parking and traffic solutions for the park.
“While the compromise of additional parking spaces is good, we will keep working until we find a solution that doesn’t involve people parking on the Greensward,” she said. “We have a lot of people on our side, and we won’t let them down.”
Connor McKenzie and Mia Hairston contributed to this story.