A Great Zoo. A Great Embarrassment.

December 10th, 2015

Like most of us, I love Overton Park.

I’ve wandered its spaces and places all my life, and much of my life has been shaped there. I discovered art there, chased kites with Dad on its greensward, climbed on its doughboy and in its trees, threw carrots to its bears, danced in its shell, and met my wife on its golf course.

Like most of us, I love the zoo.

I’m a kid again when I walk through its gates, and when I watch my grandchildren watch the wonder of it. My ad agency branded and opened Once Upon A Farm, Primate Canyon and China and I felt like a kid for much of that, too.

Like more and more of us, I hate what’s happening between them.

The separate public/private partnerships of the Overton Park Conservancy and the Memphis Zoological Society have brought the interest, support, people – and magic –back to our park in ways the city by itself never did and never could.

Along the way, the zoo seems to have forgotten that it is part of a whole, and the whole damn thing is at risk for want of parking.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, December 11, 2015, and in The Memphis News, December 12-18, 2015

Parking Garage 2


“Finally,” the young TV reporter said, “somebody who’s happy with the zoo.”

The zoo’s general manager was involved in controversy, his vision in question. The reporter found plenty of people at the zoo gate ready to feed the GM to the lions, but Nora and I were the first he talked to who liked the guy and he wanted a little balance for his story. You remember balance? Good reporters used to have it, and this guy was good.

This was in the 70s and his name was Mason Granger, later to anchor Channel 5’s news and to become a friend and colleague on various community missions and boards. Now back in his native New York, Mason might be able to return and do that same story fairly soon if the current zoo doesn’t find a place to park its attitude.

We can stop federal, state and local government – going all the way to the Supreme Court – to keep an interstate and millions of cars out of Overton Park every day, but we can’t keep the zoo from turning the park’s greensward into a parking lot and a cloud of dust every summer?

The zoo can recreate places for tigers to roam in India, gorillas to beat their chests in Africa, grizzlies and wolves to growl in the Tetons, hippos and crocs to splash and chomp in the Zambezi – filling an ark full of money with donors two-by-two – but they can’t create a habitat for SUV’s?

The zoo, city and state can come together and convince China – China, people – that we’re responsible enough to have some of their precious Pandas in our care – and raise a bamboo forest of green to pay for it – but we can’t take care of cars?

We can sacrifice acres of old forest for new opportunity to build a world-class zoo and attract millions of visitors, and direct them to no-class parking in the front yard?

These aren’t just questions for the new city administration, this is embarrassing for our city.

I’m not an architect or urban planner, but I know a few. One who’s both is Chooch Pickard, a recent candidate for city council who I hope runs again because he has interesting ideas.

One is to put a parking structure on top of an existing parking lot. It would rise above, and perhaps go below, Prentiss Place between the zoo and McLean. Five townhouses would front it on McLean, hiding it from the Evergreen neighborhood. The entire south side would be a living, growing green wall, hiding it from the homes backing up to it on Autumn. Each level above or below ground would accommodate 250 cars.

And that’s just one idea. If the zoo and the city continue to do nothing, then they have no idea how much goodwill and support will continue to die along with the grass on the greensward.

I’m a Memphian, and the elephant and gorilla in one of our best rooms can’t find a place to park.



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