Is an underground parking deck with ‘living roof’ in Grant Park’s future?

Park advocates want input on finding ‘solution’ to packed parking lots and other greenspace improvements


Parking is the biggest customer gripe that Cary Burgess, Zoo Atlanta’s senior vice president, hears. It is not unusual for guests to walk up to a mile to access the zoo due to limited spaces, he says. That demand spills over into surrounding neighborhood streets as well.

Conversation surrounding the parking woes of Zoo Atlanta — and how to solve them — was initially broached in 2007. Those conversations, however, never truly took off. But now with the zoo’s “Grand New View” expansion and zoo officials citing parking as a headache for visitors, the conversation is starting yet again.

The zoo has been clear that a “parking solution” is included in its expansion plans. A press release trumpeting a recent $1 million contribution stated as much. Yet for the past several weeks, nobody that CL chatted with seemed very certain as to what that could look like.

An army of valets? Sky buckets? Additional bus service? Maybe a long-discussed streetcar line from Downtown MARTA to Turner Field and then Grant Park? The most realistic option was a parking deck that could accommodate a larger number of vehicles — and be as unobtrusive as possible.

But a “subterranean parking solution” — let’s just call it an underground deck — is the focus. Mayor Kasim Reed even said as much when the Atlanta’s Cyclorama’s move was announced, though the news got buried over the hoopla over the historic painting’s move to the Atlanta History Center. The zoo plans to take over and restore the building that houses the painting as part of its expansion.

The Grant Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that helps maintain and improve the 131.5-acre greenspace, this afternoon welcomed the public’s help envisioning that solution and other park improvements in an update to its “Grow the Greenspace Project.” GPC notes that, as part of the move, the city committed to the zoo, park guardians, and Grant Park users, that the project would entail removing the 8-acre surface parking lot along Boulevard, turning the land into greenspace, and “installing an underground parking solution with a landscaped, environmentally-friendly living green roof.”

The concept of a greenspace-covered subterranean deck replacing the current parking lot off Boulevard was mentioned as recently as last month at a Grant Park Neighborhood Association meeting, a member who attended told CL.

The conservancy says in its newsletter that it’s been “exploring potential designs for the additional greenspace and living roof” along with other “long-term improvements in the park.” That’s included “informally” asking city officials for their thoughts on a plan that would create a new “front door” entry area to Grant Park that potentially includes a “visitor center and/or a restaurant” that could help fund the greenspace’s upkeep. The group notes that the process is in the very early stages.

“No decisions have been reached, there is still much work to be done, and most importantly, we need your feedback on any potential improvements in the park,” the update says. Visioning sessions to solicit input and feedback are being planned. And whatever the case, the GPC says, the organization “will never support a plan that does not protect the park.”

It’s understandable why zoo officials or other leaders might hesitate to sign on to anything specific just yet. As GPC notes in its update, it’s still early in the process. Second, considering the controversy that sparked after Piedmont Park Conservancy officials decided to build a parking deck in 2005, it would make sense to not surprise anyone with a proposal.

Reached two weeks ago, Burgess said there were no definite plans: “It’s still too early to be able to define what the parking solution will look like structurally or to comment on any exact locations.”

Burgess did say the zoo is confident in finding the ultimate parking solution — one that will be beneficial for everyone without disturbing the integrity of historic Grant Park. He also says the solution will be a collaboration among the City of Atlanta, GPNA, and the GPC, to best serve the interest of the business and the community. Reached around the same time, Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith echoed those sentiments.

The need for a place to stick buses and visitors automobiles is real, considering the lack of parking is “currently the number one complaint we receive from guests about the zoo experience,” Burgess said in an earlier interview. The vast Cherokee Avenue lot generally fills up within 30 minutes of the zoo’s opening, he says. The Boulevard lot also fills within the first couple of hours.

Burgess also says the number of visitors has increased over 33 percent in the past four years. In 2014 Zoo Atlanta hosted more than 900,000 guests. Its 2015 goal is to hit the 1 million visitor mark.

Along with a parking solution, the zoo’s “Grand New View” campaign focuses on renovating the historic Cyclorama building and the surrounding parkland, which the city entrusted to the zoo in 2014 for preservation, into an event space with a grand entry plaza. A 3-acre expansion of the zoo’s African elephant habitat is also included in the plan. Zoo Atlanta has no specific details to exactly what people can expect when renovations and expansion are completed.