Thursday, March 3, 2011

Forty years ago

On March 2, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a final decision on Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe. This ruling effectively prevented Interstate 40 from bisecting Overton Park and Midtown Memphis. It remains a landmark administrative law case that has been cited in thousands of legal opinions across the nation.

But as important as this ruling was, and is, the protection it gave to Overton Park was limited to federal road projects. There is still no law that protects our city parkland from local bulldozers.

In 1956, the Federal Highway Administration and Memphis officials proposed the construction of Interstate 40 through Overton Park and adjacent neighborhoods in Midtown Memphis. A year later, a small group of Memphians banded together as Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) to advocate against the proposed highway.


This citizen advocacy delayed the final approval of the midtown Memphis section of Interstate 40 until April 3, 1968, when the Memphis City Council met secretly with the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. On April 4, the City Council formally voted to approve the route and road design. (Coincidentally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis just moments after this vote was taken.)

In 1969, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) paid the City of Memphis $2 million for 26 acres of Overton Park and designated that land as Interstate 40 right-of-way.


In December of 1969, CPOP filed a local lawsuit to stop the imminent construction of the highway through the park, claiming that the federal government had failed to comply with its own regulations on routing highways through public parkland.

CPOP lost their suit and appealed to the 6th Circuit Court, where they lost again. By this time, December of 1970, the right-of-way for Interstate 40 had been cleared to the borders of Overton Park and construction was proceeding on what is now Sam Cooper Boulevard. Hundreds of homes and businesses had been destroyed.

As the bulldozers approached the east side of Overton Park, CPOP made one last effort and filed an emergency motion with the US. Supreme Court to stop highway construction. This time CPOP won their case.

The 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced the Federal Highway Administration and local authorities to follow a law -- Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 -- which required the study of all “feasible and prudent alternatives” to the use of public parkland for highway construction.

Between 1971 and 1980, the City of Memphis and TDOT continued to propose a number of alternatives for Interstate 40 -- building a two-level tunnel, building a one-level tunnel, building the highway in a deep trench, etc. -- that all followed the same route through Overton Park. None of these alternatives were approved by the Federal Highway Administration.


On January 26, 1981, TDOT finally removed the Midtown Memphis segment of Interstate 40 from the federal interstate highway plan. This decision was influenced by the cost of the proposed alternatives (estimated as high as $300 million) and by the construction of the Interstate 240 loop around Midtown Memphis, which provided a feasible alternative route.

In 1987, the State of Tennessee deeded the 26 acres of Overton Park back to the City of Memphis.

Overton Park remains the beloved centerpiece of the Memphis park system but it's still vulnerable to inappropriate development. It is time for our community to provide lasting legal protection for the entire 342-acre park and to create the 150-acre Old Forest State Natural Area.

We owe it to the courageous people who stood up for our park forty years ago, and we owe it to our kids.


Further info on CPOP v. Volpe:

3 comments:

jfwllmsn said...

As important as the 1971 Supreme Court ruling was, it was not the last word on efforts to keep I-40 out of Overton Park. City and State highway engineers continued to try to circumvent the ruling with a series of cataclysmic alternatives.

In 1978, the CPOP Board quietly decided to nominate the park to the National Register of Historic Places. Listing on the National Register guarantees that no Federal funding can be used on ill-advised projects that damage a property's historic integrity without a full review by the Dept. of the Interior.

We carefully researched and documented the historical and architectural significance of the buildings, monuments, and open spaces that give the park its distinctive character. When it was announced in 1979 that the Park had been listed on the Register, the Chandler administration, caught unawares, was apoplectic. In an editorial, The Commercial Appeal called it the "final nail in the coffin" of efforts to route I-40 through mid-town's crown jewel.

-James F. Williamson

Naomi Van Tol said...

Thank you very much for the additional information, Mr. Williamson! You did a great thing in getting the park listed on the National Historic Register.

Janis Foster Richardson said...

Thanks for the important reminder of CPOP's courageous work.

I want to add that the listing of Stonewall Place (1981) and then Evergreen (1985)as National Register Historic Districts were both efforts to discourage the resurrection of highway plans through the park and the adjacent neighborhoods and generate interest in the redevelopment of the former highway right of way in the neighborhoods. It was my good fortune to have been involved with those efforts and to have had the tiny but powerful Agnes Bowe as a relentless mentor.

Janis Foster Richardson