The speed at which traffic buzzes by these three acres of grass and shade is mesmerizing. Huntridge Circle Park is an island between north- and southbound traffic on Maryland Parkway, just south of Charleston—a problem spot lingering in the middle of the city’s rapid growth. Reports of area break-ins are up, and nearby shop-owners complain that homeless people have been routinely defecating on their properties. The park is technically closed—a big sign on the locked public bathroom says so—but short of erecting a fence or installing round-the-clock security, it still seems open. The other day, a guy was sleeping to the sound of those cars rushing by, stretched out on the picnic bench, his arm dangling.
Beginning in 2006, Huntridge Circle Park became a battleground between neighbors and homeless advocates. Activists were feeding people there; homeowners wanted the homeless to go to shelters elsewhere. So in August 2007, the city closed it—back-burnering the issue.
So that’s how Kevin Gruenwald found the situation when his UNLV political science professor, Dean Dupalo, assigned him to do a “real-world” project earlier this year.
“This is not overtly political for this group [of students],” Dupalo says. “But maybe they can prompt some action.”
Gruenwald and four others came up with proposals for the park, which none of them were familiar with—theirs was a Nellis UNLV course; these are students busy with Red Flag ops and the business of defending the country. So they researched the park and visited several times. Gruenwald saw kids playing there a few times, people walking—“the kind of thing a park is for”—but also studied the background issues, which involved the ACLU, maintenance costs, crime stats. They came up with three ideas: a skate park, an arts district/market site and a veterans memorial park, which is a $3 million idea already under consideration.
Students met last week with Mayor Oscar Goodman, who, Gruenwald says, was welcoming. A mayor’s-office spokesperson says that the proposals—presented in a 13-page report—will have to be seen by Mayor Pro Tem Gary Reese, in whose district the park is, and the council.
While Gruenwald and his classmates had no particular political agenda, two of their ideas address the homeless issue.
Students reminded the council that “to directly deter homeless from Huntridge Circle Park violates the Constitution,” a statement bolstered by the federal court’s decision to toss out the city’s 2006 attempts to make it illegal to feed people in the park and to make it illegal for people over 12 years old to be at the playground.
But there are design strategies the city could choose that would make it a less hospitable place for the homeless. If the city were to pull out the grass and trees, slab it with concrete, throw a few ramps and rails on it and open it to skaters, it would theoretically address the homeless problem. “The park would literally and in simple terms be less accommodating to long-term homeless with its overabundance of twisted steel to make skaters welcome,” says Gruenwald’s report.
By comparing with other skate-park projects, the students estimated it would cost between $250,000 and $900,000 to turn Circle Park into one, depending on the size and features. The city no longer would need to pay for water or maintenance of grass and landscaping.
Similarly, an arts- or market-centered park would discourage homeless through the constant scheduling of events, the students suggested. And, they said, First Friday could be expanded into the area—perhaps the free First Friday bus route could deliver people. Furthermore, they speculated in their report, with the possible redesign of the Huntridge Theater (see story on Page 18), Circle Park could become a cultural center.
But a veterans park is still the leading idea at this juncture, Gruenwald says, since it was on the table already and received interest from Rep. Shelley Berkley, among others. Such a plan would include commissioning artists to design monuments and likely would result in renaming the park.
“I like the fact that this was a hands-on project,” says Gruenwald. “I like that we get to get out there and make an impact on the city.
“And it’s good to see the ball rolling.”