• In reversal, city now tacitly allows overnight camping at Coronado Park
  • With cops posted to key intersections, Christmas Eve luminaria night was calm and pedestrian-friendly
  • Fire guts office building; body found
In reversal, city now tacitly allows overnight camping at Coronado Park
Back in 2019, the city launched a multi-pronged campaign to get a handle on Coronado Park, which even then had long since become a de facto day shelter for homeless people. The mission was not exactly to return the park back to the glory days, when it was known primarily as a pleasant green space and home to a steam locomotive much adored by area children (DAN, 6/16/20), but the to-do list did seem to aim for a series of small victories that would make the best of the situation. Workers installed perimeter fencing to keep people away from the road (DAN, 9/26/19). There was new lighting, sidewalk repairs, promises about more frequent monitoring, and even an outreach effort to make sure nearby businesses kept their wifi signals secure.

But perhaps the most dramatic change was a new daily routine: APD officers showed up every night at 10 p.m. (the park's closing time) to make sure nobody was camping, issued citations as warranted, and returned in the morning with a crew from the Solid Waste Department in tow so the place could be cleaned up for a new day.

"About two and a half years ago they really started enforcing that," said Kenneth Marquez, who was staying in a tent at the park's north end earlier this month and has stayed there often in the past.

In early 2020, the policy was still in effect, and then Valley Area Commander Josh Brown called it "extremely successful" (DAN, 2/25/20). During the first few months of the pandemic, the department took a break from enforcement (following federal guidelines), but that summer the immediate area saw no less than three homicides that Brown later tied back to the encampments (DAN, 10/19/20).

"Since that has happened we've taken a zero-tolerance policy on camping in the park," Brown said.

Even as recently as May of 2021, officials in Mayor Tim Keller's administration circulated a draft report to the City Council that highlighted encampment removal as a key strategy for dealing with Coronado Park.

It is not exactly clear when all that changed, but this much is certain: The new camping policy is the exact opposite of the old.

On a visit to Coronado Park earlier this month, we counted just under 70 tents, and residents reported that the city these days is basically leaving them alone.

"If they're looking for somebody - that's the only time they come around," said park resident Jarvis Johnson, referring to APD officers with warrants.

Michael Saladin, who had set up his tent next to Johnson beside the park's western wall, said he had been living off-and-on at the park for about ten months but had never seen a daily eviction policy in action.

City officials will, however, ask everybody to leave on alternating Wednesdays for a thorough cleaning, Rader Garner said. He has camped elsewhere in the Downtown area but said that last fall, an APD officer made clear to him that the only place he would not be told to leave was Coronado Park.

(Formally at least, camping is forbidden at all parks, and the city's Westside Emergency Housing Center has beds to spare. But campers cite problems with theft, fears about catching COVID, the difficulties storing possessions, and painful associations with the shelter's former status as a jail as reasons to stay away - DAN, 8/23/21.)

The city is framing all this as a practical move. 

"Removing encampments from the park would likely cause an increase in encampments in the surrounding neighborhood, including on private property," said Lisa Huval, a top city homelessness official, in a prepared statement responding to questions submitted by DAN. "Because of this, the city has decided to focus on mitigating public health issues at Coronado Park."

Huval addressed only a few of the questions, however. Those left unanswered include when exactly the new policy took effect and whether there is any sort of timeline attached to the new approach.

On the question of whether the sort of violent crime seen in 2020 could return, Huval said only that "APD proactively addresses criminal activity at Coronado Park in order to maintain safety and security."

Scott Norris, who succeeded Josh Brown as Valley Area Commander last summer, said his goal was to provide an "overwhelming presence" at the park "as a deterrent measure."

Whatever the pros and cons of the new approach, the details have not been relayed to neighborhood leaders, who first started noticing a build-up of tents last fall.

"We really appreciate the city communicating with us about what's going on with that park and we've heard nothing," Wells Park Neighborhood Association President Doreen McKnight said. "It's just like a wall of tents over there."

Huval did not address a question about that lack of communication.

Coronado Park is an especially sensitive issue in the Wells Park neighborhood because the city has in recent years floated it as a possible location for a large shelter and services center, and the prospect of losing a once-beloved greenspace permanently has never quite been taken off the table. Even after the city purchased a sprawling campus on Gibson for a new services center last year, Keller demurred when asked if he could guarantee that Coronado would remain a park (DAN, 6/11/21).

"One thing I've learned," he told DAN, "is to never guarantee anything."
With cops posted to key intersections, Christmas Eve luminaria night was calm and pedestrian-friendly
The view near Silver and Park on December 24.
With dozens - if not hundreds - of neighbors setting out luminaria displays, Christmas Eve in the Huning Castle neighborhood is typically the very picture of good cheer, beauty, and civic-mindedness. 

Yet there is still conflict: Plenty of people on foot and on bicycles want to take the tour, but plenty of people in cars want to do the same, leading to a potentially dangerous situation that is only heightened by the custom of switching off headlights to avoid washing out all the luminarias. 

"It created a scenario that was not good for pedestrians or traffic," said Rudy Garcia, a board member of the Huning Castle Neighborhood Association.

As it turns out, however, that scenario is not by design. The city routinely puts up barricades at key interactions with the goal of blocking vehicles off from streets like Laguna and Park. The pedestrian-car conflict happens when people remove those barricades and drive right in, leaving the door open for many others.

But this past Christmas Eve, something changed: The barricades stayed where they were, and those key streets did not turn into pedestrian-car conflict zones.

What happened? In a word, cops. 

"APD had the best officers they could have had at each intersection ... that made a huge difference," Garcia said. "In the past, they did not have officers at each barricade point."

Scott Norris, APD's Valley Area commander, agreed with Garcia's assessment, chalking up the success to the work of the department's traffic division and weeks of coordination with the neighborhood association before the big night. 

"Really good pre-planning," Norris said. "I just think it was a matter of the right hand talking to the left hand."

"The department is pleased that the event went smoothly," APD spokeswoman Rebecca Atkins added, calling the traffic plan "solid and well thought out."

ABQ Ride, whose luminaria bus tour returned Christmas Eve after taking 2020 off, is also happy: "We were in communication with the neighborhoods and other departments involved leading up to the event to ensure everything went smoothly," spokeswoman Lorena Sanchez said. "We'd like to thank everyone involved."

As for Garcia, he's toasting the relative lack of pedestrians forced to dodge cars.

"We just kept walking around saying, hey, it's different this year," he said. "I'm hoping this is the new normal."
Fire guts office building; body found
A small suite of offices across Central from the aquarium sustained major damage in a fire early Monday morning, with Albuquerque Fire Rescue reporting that crews found one body during a subsequent search of the wreckage.

AFR spokesman Tom Ruiz said "intense fire conditions" had "severely compromised" the integrity of the building, located at 2626 Central Avenue SW.

Part of the roof appears to have collapsed. Late yesterday afternoon, one fire truck was still at the site, though the fire had by then been put out. Large puddles of water could be seen on the site as well. The cause of the fire and the identity of the victim are either unknown or have not yet been released.

"At this time information is limited and more details will be provided once available," Ruiz said.
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