On a cloudy Wednesday morning at Shelby Farms, Woodland Discovery Playground is quite the scene. Kids chase each other through a winding steel trellis, and everyone seems to be having a good time. But driving to the park is another story.
Faith Weber was at the slides with her two-year-old, Parker.
“I come to the park usually in the mornings or the early afternoons,” says Weber, “because the traffic at rush hour is so bad that we don’t even try.”
As Memphis’s population continues to shift east, there is increasing demand for better roads through Shelby Farms. These days, the intersection at Walnut Grove and Farm Road can back up for more than a mile. But Memphians are leery of any new road through the park, and it’s not hard to understand why. In one form or another, they’ve been having this debate for thirty years. Lyle Tudor was one of about 350 people who showed up at a public hearing to discuss a proposed new road on September 24th.
“The last time (the Tennessee Department of Transportation) came in here,” says Tudor, “they almost had a riot. They wanted to put an interstate highway right down the middle of Shelby Farms; it would have just destroyed the park.”
The new road—to be called Shelby Farms Parkway—would run from Kirby Parkway to Whitten Road, replacing Farm Road as the major north-south artery through the park. It would cost about $25 million dollars, eighty percent of which would be paid for by the federal government. Advocates say the new road would solve traffic problems and improve park access while sitting lightly on the land. Tom Needham is the public works director for Shelby County.
“It has additional trails for bikes and equestrians,” Needham says. “It has tunnels to make sure wildlife gets back and forth. It provides easier access for people to the park, so they can enjoy the park better.”
The new road comes from a 2006 agreement called the Context Sensitive Solution. At that time, 17 local groups with a stake in Shelby Farms got together to try to responsibly solve the park’s traffic problems. And it worked. In the end, all 17 groups—everyone from the Wolf River Conservancy to the Greater Memphis Chamber—signed off on the agreement. But lately, some have had a change of heart.
“If traffic was growing the way it had been predicted to grow, then what we’d be saying would be a little bit different,” says Dennis Lynch, transportation chairman for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “But traffic in the vicinity of the park has not grown in eight years, so we think there’s need for much less of a road.”
The Sierra Club has emerged as the most vocal opponent of the new road. Although they signed off on the proposal in 2006, they now favor a much more limited approach, citing unreliable traffic studies and unforeseen environmental impacts.
Scott Banbury, the group's conservation director, says "there’s the immediate environmental risks to the aquifer, as well as storm water discharge to the Wolf River. But the bigger picture is, we get a lot more out of reinvesting in existing infrastructure…rather than building new infrastructure that’s gonna burden future generations with the costs of maintenance and the costs of the car-centric culture that it supports.”
At this point, the only thing holding up the new road is the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the park. Before construction can begin, the Conservancy has to sign a legal document stating that the proposed road changes would minimally impact park users and the environment. So far the Conservancy has not signed that agreement, and they say they won’t until they get several important assurances from the City of Memphis and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
“We need legally binding agreements,” says Laura Adams, the Conservancy's executive director. “Those include, primarily, access and circulation for bikes and pedestrians. We’re also looking for assurances that tractor-trailers would not be permitted on the Parkway.”
Over the past few years, Adams has begun to roll out a new master plan for the park, including Woodland Discovery Playground and the Greenline, a 6.5-mile pedestrian and bike trail connecting Shelby Farms with Midtown Memphis. Next on the agenda is the Heart of the Park, an ambitious roster of improvements slated for Summer 2014. For Adams, a responsible new road is essential not just to the future of the park, but to the well-being of the city and its people.
“I think it’s fair to ask,” says Adams, “whether we’re building our roads in the right way to provide the best quality of life for our citizens. Remember, Memphis is in competition with not only Fayette County and DeSoto County; we’re in competition now with Bangalore, India—and New York City, and Chicago—for the greatest talent in the world.”