Whitman Park: Grand Junction’s DDA hopes to fix up the once-vibrant downtown gathering place
GJPD CALLS TO WHITMAN PARK
From January 2012 through Dec. 2, 2013
Warrant Arrest — 33
Trespass — 24
Liquor Violation — 14
Drug Violation — 13
Disorderly Conduct — 10
Assault — 9
Theft — 6
Other Offense — 4
Sex Offense — 2
Restraining Order Violation — 2
Mental Health/Alcohol — 2
Fraud/Forgery — 1
Weapons Violation — 1
Runaway/Missing Person — 1
“When you look at the numbers, you’ll see there is a lot of proactive work that our officers do in the park,” said Grand Junction Police Department Pubic Information Officer Kate Porras. “Warrant arrests, for example, don’t happen because someone calls us. Instead they are generated by officers who are proactively in the parks checking for criminal activity. Many of the other criminal violations, such as theft and assault, are often vagrant vs. vagrant.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Grand Junction’s Whitman Park — located between Ute and Pitkin, next to the Museum of Western Colorado — was downtown’s gem and a vibrant gathering place for the community. Today, this beautifully treed, 2.5-acre park in the old heart of the city is primarily home to vagrancy.
“The perception of the park is that it’s dangerous,” Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Executive Director Harry Weiss said. “I want to overcome that perception, and work at making something else happen at the park.”
A main purpose of the DDA is to fund projects that improve blighted areas in Grand Junction’s historic downtown area.
“Whitman Park is one of the four original parks that was (planned) when Grand Junction was first laid out,” he noted, in the area also known as the original square mile. It’s also one of Grand Junction’s main entrances, where Highway 50 and I-70-B flow into the city.
Weiss hopes to move forward on Whitman Park improvements in 2014 by reprogramming the now passive park space with activities and events; currently, there’s no recreation equipment, few places to sit, no place for concerts, no parking, etc. He added that the run-down cornerstone park has been on the DDA’s original plan of development for downtown GJ since 1981.
“I expect the DDA Board to consider possible improvement ideas (for Whitman Park) in the first quarter of 2014,” Weiss said. “Depending upon funding availability, we could see something for implementation later in the year.”
NO QUICK FIXES
Whitman Park is found on the edge of downtown’s neglected southwest quadrant between Ute and Pitkin, near the Greyhound bus station and Grand Junction Police Department.
On a given day, groups of people (at upward of 10, or as little as a few), many of them homeless and vagrant, gather there to hang out, pass the time, sleep and socialize due to its proximity to social services and downtown. Some even panhandle. And because of that, it’s not a place often used by the general public.
In fact, many locals think of Whitman Park as “bum park” or “hobo park” because of the regular gathering of vagrants to that area.
Weiss acknowledged that it’s no surprise the public has a negative perception of the park, but he hopes it’s something that can change for the sake of creating a more usable downtown area.
Grand Junction’s Police Chief John Camper agreed, saying “because of the conditions, the perception of most people is that it’s a dangerous park, that it’s unsafe. Perception of crime is just as important as reality.”
According to Camper, many calls to the park are because of disorderly conduct and public drunkenness by transients in the area.
Most of the issues dealt with there are “vagrant vs. vagrant,” Grand Junction Police Department Public Information Officer Kate Porras said (see info box for stats).
“Sleeping there is not allowed,” Camper added. “Officers try to get in there as often as they can, but it still happens a lot.”
Because of those issues, Camper said he’d certainly “be in favor of any reasonable alternative uses to encourage others to use that park.”
There’s no “equipment, parking, nothing really that draws someone to the park,” he said. “It’s not a complete surprise we have issues there. It’s certainly not a pleasant place to be.”
Access to Whitman Park also plays into its problems.
“That’s a very old park, and the usage around it has changed,” Camper explained. “Pitkin and Ute are two one-way streets. It’s not an easy park to access by pedestrians, and there’s no easy place to park (cars). That tends to isolate the park, and make it a haven for vagrancy.”
As CEO and founder of weHope Ministries and a Grand Junction resident for 18 years, Donna Vail often goes to minister to the homeless population at Whitman Park, as well as give food, water and warm clothing to its occupants.
“I think that something needs to be done, though my heart completely goes out to the poor and the homeless,” Vail said. “They need help, and we need to make it a safe park.”
“It is absolutely not safe,” Vail continued, noting a prevalence of public intoxication. “Even the sidewalks around it, I wouldn’t want kids to be walking along there.”
Vail suggests the city and the DDA host public meetings so the community can get involved in generating ideas for the park’s future.
“I would like to see it become a safe park,” she said, “and keeping it as a (public) park is great.”
IDEAS FOR THE FUTURE
According to Weiss, being able to demonstrate that “there are positive, community-oriented things happening” in Whitman Park is the first step to changing public perception. He’d love to see regular events happening there, like evening concerts and festivals. And to bring folks to the park on a daily basis, he envisions an installation of athletic equipment, though he’s open to other ideas.
“For a little bit of money, we could create something here that would be recreational and health-oriented,” he said.
Weiss also hopes that the old park could be used as a town square and an active gathering place, much as it was when it was originally constructed.
“A lot of communities have a proper town square or a space that’s really good for public assembly,” he explained. “Right now, we try to use Main Street to do all of that, but Main Street is not a town square.” Creating a “really fine public space” at Whitman Park, Weiss said, would be “good for downtown. There are events that would be better staged in a space designed for public assembly, rather than a public street.”
DDA board member Jodi Niernberg agreed that Whitman Park could be a wonderful place to hold events, like the Downtown Farmers’ Market and live music. And to her, parking isn’t a big issue because of the variety of spaces available within a few blocks walking distance.
“It’s an underutilized jewel of downtown,” she said. “I think it can feel safe again; it can be used. We need to get more people over there and give them a reason to go over there.”
Niernberg, along with Loki Outerwear’s co-owner/founder Seth Anderson, supports exploring a skatepark and BMX park installation there. Anderson, who recently moved his storefront nearby the park on Colorado Avenue, thinks skateboarders and BMX bikers could change the image of the area by bringing warm bodies there daily. He also thinks that type of activity would be a good fit because of the limited parking.
“Parking is available near enough to the park to access it on bike, board or foot,” Anderson said.
The Museum of Western Colorado’s Executive Director Peter Booth also sees significant potential in Whitman Park as a place for partnership with museum offerings.
“The condition does need to be addressed if Grand Junction and the downtown area wish to see this area grow, prosper and develop into what it can be,” Booth said.
As the museum backs up to the park at 462 Ute Ave., Booth envisions the museum utilizing the open space, like an outdoor exhibit and a learning/heritage-based landscape with a band shelter for public programs.
“That would make a wonderful gateway announcement for people coming into Grand Junction” from the highway, he said.
And Grand Junction’s Director of Parks and Recreation Rob Schoeber has great hopes for Whitman Park, too.
“Certainly, the park is underutilized in the community compared to” Grand Junction’s 34 other developed parks, Schoeber said. “It’s turned into a loitering space, rather than any kind of active space or family hangout. If we can find more attractive uses, we’re all for it. I’m fully on board with Harry’s thoughts.”
If anyone has ideas on how to improve Whitman Park, both Schoeber and Weiss welcome public comment. The DDA may be reached at 970-245-9697. The City of GJ Parks and Recreation Department may be reached at 970-254-3866.
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