The group Tom Lee Park For All is advocating for more parking in the new Tom Lee Park. Pictured (l-r): Jeremy Ellison, Gina Dickerson, Pearl Walker, Britney Thornton, Kathleen McMillan and Joe Kent. (Photo courtesy of Candace A. Gray)

Candace A. Gray —

Since July of last year, concerns have been raised – on several occasions – about the number of parking spaces that will be in the new Tom Lee Park. Tom Lee Park For All – a collective giving voice to those concerns – did so again this week.

The group, which includes community leaders from neighborhoods such as Downtown, Whitehaven and Orange Mound, along with other concerned citizens and park users, say that citizens deserve more parking to serve the community. A press conference regarding their concerns was held at Butler Park overlooking the Tom Lee Park construction site on Wednesday (Jan. 5).

The gathering followed a lawsuit filed in November against the City of Memphis and Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRRP). Group members Joe Kent, Britney Thornton, Jeremy Ellison, Pearl Walker, Kathleen McMillan and Gina Dickerson allege a violation of a mediation agreement among the City of Memphis, MRRP and the Memphis in May International Festival.

The assertion is that an agreement for 130 parking spaces to remain in the park design has given way to plans for 68 parking spaces with no input from the public and no approval from city officials. The group seeks to compel the City of Memphis and MRRP to restore the 130 parking spaces originally included in the park redesign documents.

“This violation adversely affects citizens who attend the park who don’t live next to the park or within walking distance, forcing those who have to drive down here into an auto-centric city without a robust public transportation system,” said Thornton, founder of the non-profit JUICE Orange Mound and a District 10 Shelby County Commission candidate.

“The mediation clearly states parking is to be part of the park budget and consistent with expectant park usage.”

Kent added, “And they’re expecting 250,000 visitors to the park.”

The City of Memphis and Memphis River Parks Partnership have filed motions to get the lawsuit dismissed.

Tom Lee Park For All wants the press conference and the lawsuit to spur more community engagement, dialogue and, ultimately, lead to restoration of the parking spaces slated in the original design plans.

George Abbott, MRRP’s director of external affairs, said the park design plans were approved at every step of the way and only changed to accommodate Memphis in May.

“The plan for Tom Lee Park originally included 130 parking spaces on both sides of Riverside Drive when it was anticipated to be a two-lane street,’ said Abbott.

“This was reflected on the model of the park, which has been on display at Beale Street Landing (and on tomleepark.org) for two years. However, when Memphis in May, supported by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said it required four lanes to produce its festival, the plan, by necessity, eliminated the planned parking lanes in order to provide four travel lanes, reducing the number of spaces to 68, all on the west side of the street.”

Abbott said forums were held, including via Zoom during the pandemic, to keep the public updated each step of the way in the design process.


 


Some social media posts regarding the dispute reflect the belief that there are more pressing issues to discuss other than the number of parking spaces in a park that is under construction.

However, for the Tom Lee Park For All group, more parking is needed to serve the community.

According to Memphis River Parks, there is more parking available than ever before.

“In addition (to the 68 parking spaces in the park), within two blocks of Tom Lee Park, there are more than 2,000 spaces in garages and thousands more in surface lots and on-street parking,” said Abbott. “The emphasis on walkability is in keeping with Memphis 3.0 and the BuildDowntown master plan.”

Abbott said the amount of ADA/handicapped parking available in the park is yet to be determined, adding that MRRP is working with the City of Memphis to make sure that those who need it most have parking near the park.

(Additionally, an ADA-compliant winding walkway, the Cutbank Bluff, is near completion on the bluff at Vance Park and will provide an all-access entry for all park-goers.)

Though he was not listed on the lawsuit, Jerred Price, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, has also been very vocal about the parking issue.

“Citizens, overall, love Tom Lee Park,” said Price. “The park itself is set to have some great improvements, but having plenty of free park-side parking is a valuable asset to families who come to the park and don’t live within walking distance of the park.”

Charmeal Alexander, Tom Lee’s great, great niece said, “I seldom comment on anything regarding Tom Lee Park outside of my lineage of my great uncle Thomas ‘Tom’ Lee and his heroic deeds of saving 32 lives. Nevertheless, regarding parking spaces for the New Tom Lee Park, they are very important, no matter where you visit.

“However, downtown parking always seems to spark a debate. I strongly believe the team will make sure the debate over parking spaces will be resolved, constructively, to please everyone.”