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Debate continues over parking at Tom Lee Park in Memphis

Published: Jul. 14, 2021 at 10:50 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - You’re going to have to pay to play at the newly revamped Tom Lee Park.

The latest design eliminates all of the free parking at the popular downtown park.

Construction’s underway right now on a $60 million renovation that adds wonderful new features. But it’s what’s being removed that’s causing more controversy.

The head of Memphis’ Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) says the latest redesign plan for Tom Lee Park has a pricey problem.

“We’re in essence taking away the free parking that’s in the park now, and forcing families to find parking and then pay for it. You shouldn’t have to pay to access a public park,” said DNA President Jerred Price.

Price says the current plan, which offers 68 metered parking spaces on the west side of a four-lane Riverside Drive with the first hour free of charge, is different than the plan presented to the public a few months ago. He says that plan had more parking areas along Riverside that provided nearly twice as many free spaces.

He also says the most recent design violates the agreement between Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) and Memphis in May (MIM).

MRPP CEO Carol Coletta says the design process has been transparent to the public and the current plan is in line with what was agreed upon during mediation with MIM.

“There’s plenty of parking,” she told WMC Action News 5. “And I think anybody who wants to know about the park, we’ve certainly been eager to share it with them because we think we’re building a great park for the citizens of Memphis.”

What’s not so great, says Price, is having to put money into a parking meter or dig into your wallet to park in a garage, and then trek down the bluff to the park. Memphis City Councilman Martavius Jones couldn’t agree more.

“In my estimation, it makes it only accessible for people who live downtown,” Jones said.

Coletta says charging for parking downtown is something most cities uniformly do.

“I think it’s an extremely equitable strategy because again, you’ve got your first hour free, but then you pay to park after that. So, that will keep things turning,” she said.

Critics worry a lack of free parking will turn people off.

“It leads to the question,” said Price, “are they trying to isolate the usage to a certain community here in Memphis? Are they trying to limit access to the park?”

“And I think people are used to a public park and this park should have even greater public access,” Jones added.

In addition to the 68 metered spots along Riverside Drive, Coletta says park-goers can park at the MLGW parking garage a few blocks away. And when the new Mobility Center, a $40 million parking garage planned for the corner of Main and Beale is built, that will be an option too. The center is expected to be done by 2022. The revamped Tom Lee Park should be done by 2023.

“We have a design for a phenomenal park that we are building and it’s been reviewed every step of the way by the Riverfront Steering Committee, which is chaired by Chief McGowan at the City of Memphis, other city officials, and Floyd Benson with Memphis In May,” Coletta said. “We think we have a good solution, given the location, and plentiful parking that is all around us.”

WMC Action News 5 reached out to MIM officials after the close of business Wednesday. We’ll update this story when we receive a response.

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