President Joe Biden won’t be making an appearance in Denver’s Civic Center Park when he comes to Colorado Tuesday. The blighted area which was once the crown jewel of Denver’s park system is scheduled to be shut down indefinitely the day after his visit because officials say it has become a magnet for criminal activity and public health concerns.
Last week, the City of Denver announced that it was closing the iconic park as part of a comprehensive plan to clean up rat infestation, human and pet waste and drug paraphernalia which has overtaken the once-proud park known for civic activity. In 1990 and 1991, the CART Grand Prix was held there, and it was the spot where people gathered for 9/11 and Columbine vigils.
In 2008, 100,000 people showed up during Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg held a rally at the Greek amphitheater recently, and it's been home base for hundreds of festivals and marches which stop and end at the park.
“Would I want to show it off now? Maybe this is the type of thing they need to see,” Happy Haynes, Executive Director of Denver Parks and Recreation, told The Gazette as she surveyed the park grounds. Behind her, park rangers in rubber gloves had just shooed off a man who they say was shooting up on the steps of the Greek amphitheater. “People are so bold, they don’t even bother to turn around. This has gotten to a difficult stage,” said Haynes.
In recent months, the space has become an open-air drug market. Just minutes before Haynes walked through the park, four Denver police vehicles and two ambulances screamed to the corner of 14th and Broadway to arrest a man who they say was dealing fentanyl.
An EMT clutching an oxygen mask scurried to help him, police said, in case he had overdosed on his own product and needed medical attention. Nearby, under a tree, a woman stood by in handcuffs as a group of Denver police officers emptied her backpack. One man inhaling what he said was hash from a straw asked one reporter to leave so that people wouldn’t beat him up for being a snitch.
Sgt. Tyler Blakeley said police are often called to the corner known as “1499 North Broadway,” because “…there’s lots of narcotic activity. We address it as best we can.”
Drug arrests are not the only problem which have plagued the park in recent years. Since January, there have been 452 reported crimes in and around Civic Center park, according to statistics provided to the Gazette by the Denver Police Department. Of those, two were murders, 54 were assaults and 105 were drug offenses.
The problems which come with homelessness and drug addiction is affecting downtown tourism. As a woman shouted at them for money, one couple taking a shortcut through the park from the Denver Art Museum on their way to the Brown Palace shook their heads. “It’s sorrow-inducing,” said Nancee Busse. Her husband, Grady, blamed society for leaving the drug addicts and mentally ill behind, “We’ve discarded these people. The way you address it is not by ignoring it.”
Laura Watts, who lives just blocks away from the Civic Center complex says she only walks through the area during the daytime. “It reeks of urine. It needs to be cleaned up,” said Watts. “There’s no way I’d walk through here at night. It’s too dangerous.” Currently, the city of Denver has instilled a strict curfew for anyone in the park which lasts from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. every day.
Denver Police Sgt. Blakeley believes the move to clean up Civic Center Park will make the area safer for people like Watts; but he admits that once the big park is fenced up, the homeless population will “move somewhere else that’s open.” Most likely, he says, they'll migrate across the street to the newly-named Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park, a patch of land which is sandwiched between Civic Center Park and the State Capitol.
While Civic Center Park is owned and managed by the city of Denver, LVMP is the responsibility of the state of Colorado even though both parks are still considered part of the Civic Center complex. Law enforcement swept that park of homeless encampments in July 2020 over public health concerns following downtown’s George Floyd protests. Today, the once-trodden grass grows green again and it’s a popular spot for the downtown lunch crowd compliments of a $207,000 face lift which is just over a year old.
Still, the officials who oversee maintenance for LVMP say that while they are anticipating the homeless crowds to hopscotch from Civic Center Park across North Broadway to their space, they are keeping it open to the public. “There are no plans to close it down,” said Doug Platt, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration. Platt says the state will suspend all applications for food permits in LVMP to keep from having to clean up the trash left behind.
The Colorado State Patrol, which is in charge of security at the state-run LVMP, says no encampments have been allowed there since they swept the park in the summer of 2020. Since then, they’ve increased their patrols and have no plans to add troopers in anticipation of Civic Center Park’s closure and possible overspill. Master Trooper Gary Cutler told the Gazette their biggest concern is the health hazards which he says happens when people call the park home. “There are no bathroom facilities, and last summer when we cleaned it up, we found feces, rats and needles,” said Cutler.
Before the George Floyd protests, CSP troopers did not have the authority to arrest people. Now they do, and routinely take people into the Denver County Jail for anything from burglary to assaults. Before, they handed off arrests to the Denver Police Department.
Thursday afternoon, several people hanging out in the soon-to-be-closed Civic Center space were eyeing the park across the street. Several told The Denver Gazette they’ll just move their belongings when the time comes. “This is stupid. We aren’t hurting anyone,” said Chris Gonzalez, who moved to Denver from Pueblo to work in the marijuana industry. “The police are lying. There’s no crime here. (in Civic Center Park).” Gonzalez says he is living on the street because he hasn’t been able to find work.
Last Wednesday, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment distributed signs throughout Civic Center Park giving loiterers a week to clear out and take due to “unsafe conditions."
On the north side of the park, dozens of flats of fencing are waiting to be installed by Wednesday. The park will be barricaded from 14th Avenue Parkway to the south, to Bannock Street on the West, Colfax Avenue to the north and along Broadway. In addition, Macintosh Park with also be fenced off as will the Pioneer Monument area.
Cyndi Karvaski, spokesperson for the parks department, says the city has a plan to keep Civic Center Park from returning to its present state of disrepair by adding new security and lighting systems. There are plans to increase the number of park rangers patrolling the area from three to eight.
Park rangers, who carry Narcon to administer to people who have overdosed, do not have the power to arrest people, but will be working hand in hand with the Denver Police Department “as a sort of watchdog” to handle complaints, Karvaski said.
Once park maintenance workers clean up the trash, hazardous materials and rat burrows, they will restore the grass, rehabilitate the trees and remove graffiti which is prevalent especially on the walls of the historic Greek amphitheater.
“A park shouldn’t look like this,” said a man who identified himself only as “Eli."
“I’m not homeless. Just a guy trying to make a buck.” Eli told the Denver Gazette he’ll be back in Civic Center Park ready for business as soon as the clean-up is complete and the fences are removed.
City officials insist that once the fences are taken down, people will be welcome again. “The Parks are open to everyone. We’re not trying to push people out,” said Karvaski, “Our long term plan is to enhance the park while keeping its historic status.”