The growing controversy that has the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park Conservancy each bearing their claws is not a space problem. It’s a car problem. And a solution can be found through better — and more creative — management of the vehicles bringing guests to one of this country’s finest zoos.
To begin with, the zoo should increase its prices to park on the available (paved) lots adjacent to the facility. This is the first economics lesson any of us learned: supply and demand. Those who choose to drive to the zoo and park their car in a zoo lot should have to pay a premium, as those spaces are clearly in limited supply. (And this goes for members, too. No more free parking with a membership. I say this as a 20-year zoo member.)
Sections of the zoo’s lot — which currently fits 854 cars — can be divided into “time zones.” One price (and section) if you’d like to park for the entire day. Another section and lower price for four-hour parking. Right down to a one-hour lot that would be most affordable for visitors merely needing their daily elephant fix.
What happens when all lots — at all prices — are full? The zoo is sold out, folks, at least to cars. While anyone with an interest in profitability for the Memphis Zoo will squirm at such a notion, there’s no better marketing tool than a “Sold Out” sign. Memphians must deal with sellouts at the Orpheum, FedExForum, the Cannon Center, Opera Memphis, even the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival (on rare occasions). Life and business will go on if some visitors don’t make it to the zoo on time.
And zoo sellouts would be temporary. This gets back to the need for creative parking management. The zoo could post on its web site when the lots are full and when parking spots would re-open based on the time-stamped parking passes. “Twenty spaces will re-open at 2 p.m.” Simple as that.
Memphis has an addiction to the automobile. Everywhere we go, whatever the time of day, it’s drive, drive, drive. There’s a contradiction, somehow, in so many gas-guzzlers being needed to visit an attraction that showcases creatures of nature. If you’re going to the zoo, carpool with some family or friends. If the lots are full, give Uber some business, call a cab, or (deep breath) ride a bike.
I love the Memphis Zoo and have relished its rise to greatness, its growing emphasis on environmental compassion for its many stars. But I also love Overton Park, and it was here first. The zoo is the park’s guest, not the other way around. Managing real estate is more complicated than opening a gate and borrowing your neighbor’s yard. In this case, the Memphis Zoo needs to think inside the box and find a way to retain profitability while, at the same time, allowing the park it calls home to breathe.