Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shelby Farms Won't Park Ambition

Nothing contributes more to success with the public sector than timing, persistence, and positioning.

There’s no better proof than Shelby Farms Park.

Considered DOA six years ago by Shelby County Government, it has risen from the political graveyard with a vengeance. Today, it is well on its way toward a massive overhaul that could cost $100 million. That’s a third more than the Memphis parks division’s capital funding wish list over the next five years, but when compared to the price tag of the Great Park in Irvine, California, it sounds like a bargain. Costs there for a much smaller park have been estimated at $1 billion.

Never Say Die

Perhaps that’s one reason the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy chose the lighter touch of New York-based field operations over two other more ambitious master planning concepts. First, it responds to concerns by long-time park activists that the other plans were too dramatic and disruptive, but more to the point, it responds to the practical: There’s really not much reason to adopt a master plan that you can’t afford to implement.

It began in March, 2002, when Memphis business leader and then-chairman of the Shelby Farms Board (back then, it didn’t even have park in its name) Ron Terry proposed a $20 million plan for the park. He called for the park to be managed by an independent conservancy, for resolving the long contentious highway alignment through the park, and for creating a conservation easement to preserve the land for park use.

Four months after being presented, the Terry proposal was declared dead when the lame duck administration of Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, who asked Terry to “dream a new vision for the park,” could not pass two crucial resolutions. Vociferous opposition of former commissioner Walter Bailey and the hostility of unaccountably powerful Agricenter International created hurdles that could not be cleared.

The Measured Approach

But reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. About 14 months later, the first serious stirrings of resurrecting the proposal were seen, and they came in the Friends of Shelby Farms, the grassroots group that had developed a reputation for opposing anything that changed a blade of grass at the park.

Its new president, Laura Adams, had been involved in the Terry proposal and had learned a critical lesson well. If a conservancy was to be created, it could not appear full-blown on a county agenda. Instead, a strong foundation had to be laid, and it had to be the result of a process that planted the idea in the public mind and allowed it to unfold in stages that seemed incremental and progressive.

So, the rejuvenated Friends of Shelby Farms adopted a new mission, and despite all odds, sent the unmistakable signal that it would consider a compromise on Kirby-Whitten Road through the park when it sent new Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton a recommendation for context sensitive design, which loosely meant that the road design had to adapt to its park setting.

Building Steam

The new attitude was propelled forward when a special Shelby County Advisory Committee headed by Gene Pearson, University of Memphis director of city and regional planning, issued a report that confirmed some of the founding principles of the Terry plan and set the framework for a new push for a conservancy.

A week later, Wharton formed a new committee to develop consensus recommendations to resolve the highway dispute. Its approach: context sensitive design. Another committee followed about a year later when he appointed the Shelby Farms Park Master Plan Task Force to pick a master planner for the park.

In other words, this time, momentum was built one step at a time, and plans came together brick by brick. As a result, funding goals for a new park grew to $80-100 million, and this time, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly approved the creation of the conservation easement, a management contract with the new Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, and a master plan.


And it all really began when a grassroots group made the decision to move from being defined by what it was against to what it was for, and as a result, Friends of Shelby Farms morphed into Shelby Farms Park Alliance which fundamentally morphed into the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, which now, finally, has a free hand to deliver what it promises – the standard for all 21st century urban parks.

Even in a city notorious for chasing big projects as the magic answers to its problems, this one may actually deserve its hyperbole.

This post was previously published as Memphis Magazine's City Journal column.

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