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Parking in the park: the Grant Park chapter

A deck is trampled before it's proposed

Sometimes trial balloons become targets even before they're inflated.

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Zoo Atlanta hasn't officially proposed a parking deck in Grant Park. But a leading park advocate says the zoo's president broached the subject in March, shortly after the zoo abandoned the idea of moving to the old Lakewood Fairgrounds. Since then the advocate – Grant Park Conservancy Director Phil Cuthbertson – has made it clear a deck would meet stiff opposition.

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"There's got to be a more holistic approach to providing the parking that people need but also to encourage people to walk a little more, to bike a little more, to use public transportation," Cuthbertson says. "There have to be a lot of things open on the table that are more creative than a parking deck."

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Cuthbertson got an assist from the Atlanta Preservation Center, which last month declared the deck makes Grant Park one of the "13 Most Endangered Sites in Atlanta."

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"Zoo Atlanta," read the Grant Park entry to the list, which was published in the AJC, "is proposing to increase parking to 2,400 spaces with the inclusion of a deck to accommodate future parking needs and to expand its borders inside Grant Park, removing public park space from public use. Currently, the 900-car parking lots it shares with the park and Atlanta Cyclorama are full only 60 days this year."

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Zoo officials were surprised by the reaction – particularly because they hadn't actually proposed a deck, or for that matter an expansion.

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Although Zoo Atlanta President Dennis Kelly admits the zoo would love to replace some of the park's existing surface lots with more space for animals, he says he's so far from proposing anything that he doesn't even know if expansion would be part of the plan. And Kelly insists the supposed 2,400 parking spaces were simply a number tossed around in an informal conversation with Cuthbertson over the parking needs at the average major metropolitan zoo.

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"We are just now starting to think about what's best for Atlanta and its premier zoological institution," Kelly says. "The process has got to be collaborative, and it will take time."

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Cuthbertson wants the zoo and the city to consider alternatives to a deck – better MARTA service, shuttles from the lots around Turner Field or even a deck outside the park. Kelly says the zoo wants to consider all options.

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Whatever the solution, even some park enthusiasts say an increasing demand for parking is inevitable. "Because Atlanta is such a sprawling city, people rely on their cars to get to destinations, including parks," says George Dusenbury, executive director of Park Pride, a greenspace advocacy group. "With regional parks, like Piedmont, Chastain and Grant – especially when they have destinations like the zoo – unless we completely redesign the city, we need to find a way to accommodate drivers in a way that minimally impacts the experience of park visitors."

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In some ways, the zoo confronts a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't predicament. If it unveils growth plans before they're set, it risks seeing the plans cut apart before they have a chance to gather momentum. If it presses its interests behind closed doors, the zoo creates the impression that it's just another elitist organization trying to sneak its agenda past the public.

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All this may sound familiar to those who followed the great parking-deck debate in Piedmont Park, where another privately run attraction on public land – Atlanta Botanical Garden – pushed for a six-story deck on an undeveloped hillside.

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One difference there was that the more establishment-oriented Piedmont Park Conservancy actually backed the deck. After a year of behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the conservancy and the garden enlisted Mayor Shirley Franklin's help last year in ramming approval for the deck through City Council. Now deck opponents are suing the city, the conservancy and the garden over the secretive way in which they pushed the deck.

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While its Midtown counterpart has been showered with loads of attention and private landscaping money, Grant Park has suffered from years of bad decisions and poor maintenance. "I could show you some old pictures that would make you cry of lakes and meadows that aren't there anymore because of parking," Cuthbertson says.

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There's even a bit of tension between some advocates and the zoo over the very idea of a zoo in the park. Cuthbertson notes that Grant Park's lead designer, famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, was upset when city fathers decided to place the zoo in the park in the late 1800s.

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"Olmsted said the natural tendency of such operations is to grow and expand" and eventually to take over public greenspace, Cuthbertson says. Asked if he'd like to see the zoo removed, Cuthbertson says: "From a purist's point of view that would be a wonderful thing, but that would not be reality."

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Both sides in Grant Park say they're attempting to steer clear of Piedmont Park-style acrimony. Zoo spokeswoman Susan Elliott offers her assurance that the zoo wants "to be transparent from the get-go." She and Kelly say zoo officials will spend the next year or so bouncing ideas off neighborhood groups, city officials and the conservancy.

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"Piedmont Park was a very divisive issue," Cuthbertson says. "And we don't want that."

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But he also makes clear that it wouldn't take much to trigger a real fight: "I don't want to get into it with the zoo, but then again my job is to advocate for the park."

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See Grant Park at its finest during its annual Summer Shade Festival, Aug. 25-26. For more information, go to gpconservancy.org.