Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The changes at Huntridge Circle Park in downtown Las Vegas since the city closed it four months ago are obvious: Grass has been replaced with decorative rocks and a fence surrounds the playground. Soon, concrete work will be installed in and around the park, along with new plants and signage.
But the most noticeable change since the park closed in October, according to residents, is a reduction of noise and crime in the neighborhood. And some are anxious about what will happen when the park reopens in early April.
Situated on Maryland Parkway just south of Charleston Boulevard, the park has been the subject of debate since at least 2006, when it was closed following a stabbing incident. Residents say that shortly after the park fully reopened in 2013, it became a popular spot for the homeless, drug users and petty thieves.
Things took a turn for the violent in July, when a man who reportedly frequented the park broke into a nearby home. The man beat, robbed and shot an 80-year-old longtime resident, who survived the vicious attack.
Some in the neighborhood, who report having spotted knives, needles and intoxicated individuals in the park, have given up hope that it can be reclaimed as a space for residents and families. Mica Keller, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, believes that reopening the park will cause more harm than good.
“We envision the park being a space where we can take our child and enjoy the space with family and friends,” Keller said. “There’s no way we would think about going there in the condition it was in when it was last opened.”
Keller and fellow resident Kathleen Kahr D’Esposito say that problems escalated in the park several years ago after Food Not Bombs began giving away free food. This has contributed to trash from discarded food, drug use and harassment in the park, Kahr said.
Before the park closed, Kahr often felt uncomfortable even setting foot in it.
The city’s renovations were intended to deter those who may create an unsafe environment for residents or families, said Jerry Walker, operations and managing director for the city.
“Due to these concerns, a plan was set in motion to create the fencing around the playground to provide separation and ensure that children and their parents had a safe environment,” Walker wrote in an email.
The park was scheduled to reopen in December, but the city decided to move forward with a second phase of renovations, said Jace Radke, senior public information officer for Las Vegas.
“The thought was rather than open the park for a few weeks only to close it again, the city would continue with phase two construction,” Radke wrote in an email.
Keller and Kahr say the physical changes to the park — at least initially — have only made it less attractive. Keller compared the fence around the park playground to “a jail.”
“[My children] deserve to have a green space, and putting fences up so they can still see the crackheads on the bench, no, that’s not helpful at all,” she said.
Another resident, Erica Martinez, worries the newly installed decorative rocks will encourage violence or could be used as weapons. Keller said a neighbor has already had some of the rocks thrown at their window.
“In the words of my 5-year-old, ‘That wasn’t a smart thing they did putting the rocks around,’” Martinez said.
Councilman Bob Coffin, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there with his family, said the changes to the park’s configuration and features will help ensure its long-term future.
In addition to the renovations already in place, the city plans to incorporate public art in the park, and public activities such as movie screenings and get-togethers will resume once it reopens, Coffin said.
“It will still be a park, with additional features,” he said.
Nonetheless, Kahr and Keller believe that only management changes at the park, such as turning it over to a private owner or changing the hours of operation, will lead to real change. Kahr wishes the city had scheduled a neighborhood meeting specifically about the park’s future to allow residents to share their concerns and suggestions.
“That, to me, would be the first thing you do before you rip out the elements that make a park a park,” said Kahr, who is also president of the Huntridge Neighborhood Association.
Neighborhood meetings regularly take place in Ward 3. The most recent meeting took place on Dec. 20, Radke said.
Park changes highlight homelessness in neighborhood
The renovations raise the question: How will this affect the homeless who previously found shade and refuge in the park?
Kahr emphasized that homelessness has been prevalent in the neighborhood for years and is not the core issue that has caused problems at the park. The petty thieves and drug users who have more recently started to spend time in the park are the ones who have created issues for neighbors, Kahr said.
“As a matter of fact, a lot of the regulars that were homeless and hung out in the park moved on because the park got so rough,” she said.
Kelly Patterson, who lives near the park and has fed the homeless with Food Not Bombs, said his organization feeds people because the city isn't meeting their needs.
“They need food, and we share it with them,” Patterson said.
He disputed claims that his group has contributed to more crime and trash around the park, saying the city’s decision to make the park less accessible for sleeping and gathering will only force the homeless to gather elsewhere.
“It’s indicative of the policy of the city,” Patterson said. “Instead of trying to solve the issue, they just shift it to another area.”
Coffin said he takes the issue of homelessness seriously and hopes that more people in need will make use of the city’s existing services, including the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center on Foremaster Lane.
“Unfortunately, homelessness is a public safety problem,” Coffin said. “Many homeless do petty thievery in neighborhoods, squat in the neighborhoods. That is a problem, which we are trying to solve.”
Radke emphasized that Las Vegas is committed to serving its homeless population, which is the eighth highest of all metro areas in the country.
“[The] city works closely with community partners to provide outreach to the homeless population at Huntridge Park and locations throughout the city to ensure that they can access the services they need to break the cycle of homelessness,” Radke wrote in an email.
Looking ahead to the upcoming municipal election, Martinez hopes that whoever succeeds Coffin, who is not running for reelection, will heed the perspectives of residents when it comes to the future of the park.
“We want to be able to work with our government and our elected officials,” she said. “Hopefully the elected official that goes into that office is willing to work with us and I hope it’s a positive thing.”