It’s a mild Saturday afternoon in February but instead of running kids to soccer practice, some Midtown parents are spending the lunch hour at Memphis Made Brewing Company. The brewery is hosting the Old Forest Jamboree, the Citizens to Protect Overton Park’s (CPOP) sixth-annual fundraiser. Discussion today focuses on the ongoing controversy between the Memphis Zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy (OPC) over the zoo’s use of the Greensward for overflow parking.
“The zoo is taking a hard line and I feel the community is losing,” says Kelli Polatty, a mom who has brought along her 12-year-old daughter for the event.
For many years, the zoo has used part of the Greensward, the large open field that fronts Rainbow Lake at Overton Park, for overflow parking. But recently, residents and supporters of OPC and CPOP have begun to push back. “Look at Central Park in New York City; could you imagine people finding it acceptable to park on that?” asks Polatty, who lives in Cooper-Young and regularly visits the park with her kids. “Why is there not more collaboration? It surprises me that the zoo won’t take that good-neighbor stand.”
Who controls the Greensward and its future?
Naomi Van Tol, Stacey Greenberg, and Roy Barnes are three parents who have been involved with Get Off Our Lawn (GOOL), a CPOP initiative that focuses specifically on the Greensward issue. While Overton Park is owned by the city, the Conservancy manages it. Both the Conservancy and zoo officials claim control of the Greensward.
GOOL organized in March 2014, creating a social media presence on Facebook and gradually gaining momentum as they began to press the zoo for a different parking solution. The zoo parks cars on the Greensward roughly 60 days a year.
GOOL’s activities have included planting trees (some were removed by zoo officials), handing out leaflets to visitors with alternative parking options, hosting playdates as well as events like Take Back the Greensward (which took place mid-January), “to help us remind zoo leaders that Overton Park does not belong to them. It belongs to the citizens of Memphis, and we are taking it back.”
The coalition now boasts more than 2,600 Facebook fans and nearly 50 businesses, nonprofits, and neighborhood associations. Van Tol says having cars on the Greensward leaves the parkland dusty and too hard to aerate or reseed. “It’s unpleasant seeing the cars and having them drive so close to where children are playing,” she adds. “That ground is as hard as a rock; it’s harder to run on so a lot of soccer players won’t use it.” Greenberg and Van Tol believe it’s also a financial issue, since they have evidence the zoo earns roughly $1 million annually in parking fees.
Raising awareness and support
At today’s fundraiser, GOOL members sell “Get Off Our Lawn” T-shirts, and yard signs. Business is brisk as supporters leave with shirts and signs, which have steadily sprouted across Midtown.
As former director of operations for CPOP, which was revived in 2008, Van Tol has championed other measures to save the Old Forest. “Our first campaign was to get it designated as a state natural area,” she notes. In June 2011, the Tennessee Department of Conservation proclaimed the Old Forest a State Natural Area, permanently protecting 126 acres of old growth forest, much of which borders zoo property. “The zoo fought us on getting that state designation and they were shocked because citizens beat them. We protected the forest,” says Van Tol.
GOOL’s aim is to continue that protection, in hopes that the zoo will eventually work with the Conservancy and other stakeholders to find a better solution for parking. The Conservancy has held several public meetings as the issue continues to be studied. • To learn more, go to Get Off Our Lawn’s Facebook page.