The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jon Mur­ray

Down­town Den­ver’s pop­u­lar Com­mons Park is blos­som­ing, and one of its best-known fea­tures is part of that area’s much-needed and widely ap­plauded im­prove­ment. »

For years, the bat­tle of “Stoner Hill” has sim­mered in Den­ver’s Com­mons Park. But neigh­bor­hood ac­tivist Don Co­hen says he re­cently took in the view at the prom­i­nent hill — a fea­ture that has hid­den ar­eas of the river­front park from view and some­times made it a mag­net for the home­less and drug ac­tiv­ity — and mar­veled at a change.

Largely ab­sent this year, thanks to a mix of new se­cu­rity mea­sures and an in­creas­ing num­ber of pub­lic events, have been the dozens of home­less and tran­sient youths who laid claim to the hill for sev­eral re­cent sum­mers.

In­stead, Co­hen said of that re­cent Sun­day evening, lo­cal jazz mu­si­cians per­formed at the base of the same hill for a few hun­dred peo­ple who sat up on the slope. They were a mix of res­i­dents from the se­nior liv­ing com­mu­nity across the street, mil­len­ni­als who pop­u­late the area’s apart­ment build­ings and fam­i­lies with tod­dlers. Plenty brought their dogs.

“It was pretty mag­i­cal,” Co­hen said. “And it was cool — it was the first time any­body had ever done mu­sic in the park, and on the side of the hill there’s a nat­u­ral am­phithe­ater-type of ef­fect.”

He hopes to see more con­certs and large events in the park’s fu­ture — and fewer of the prob­lems that dogged Com­mons Park be­gin­ning in 2013, when its prox­im­ity to down­town seemed to crys­tal­lize what neigh­bor­hood lead­ers saw as a prob­lem that threat­ened to ruin River­front Park’s back­yard.

Den­ver Parks and Re­cre­ation of­fi­cials and Co­hen’s River­front Park As­so­ci­a­tion tried dif­fer­ent strate­gies to nudge along home­less adults and the young peo­ple, in­clud­ing a heavy mix of pot smok­ers and other drug users, who sat on the hill

and sur­round­ing ar­eas for much of the day. And for a few years, they had lit­tle suc­cess.

Fenc­ing went up around the hill in early 2015, os­ten­si­bly to re­store the well-trod sod. But the gath­er­ing spot sim­ply moved that sum­mer to the park green across a walk­ing path. And it re­turned to the hill that fall when the fence came down.

The last year, though, has brought no­tice­able change.

“Re­ally, it came within the last 12 months,” said Co­hen, the neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent. “When you think of where we were last year, we had eight cop cars up on the hill after a meth guy went and clocked a po­lice of­fi­cer. I sort of felt like that was the low point.”

How parks of­fi­cials, po­lice and lead­ers in the higher-in­come neigh­bor­hood went about re­claim­ing the park in­volved sev­eral tac­tics — some of which raised ten­sions with the Stoner Hill youths and drew crit­i­cism from ad­vo­cates for the home­less com­mu­nity.

But for Co­hen and some other res­i­dents, the pres­ence of drug ac­tiv­ity and large groups of peo­ple who oc­cu­pied the hill for long stretches of the day con­trib­uted to con­cerns about safety, of­ten just per­ceived but some­times real.

“Now I feel safe walk­ing in the park again,” said Leah Whitten, a res­i­dent of one of the nearby build­ings. She has mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis and rides on an elec­tric scooter dur­ing her daily trips in the park with her hound mix, Charley.

“I used to have a lot of peo­ple com­ing up and say­ing things to me or yelling at me,” she said. “It made me un­com­fort­able.”

Sev­eral fac­tors

In the past year or so, after lob­by­ing by the neigh­bor­hood group, the parks depart­ment in­stalled nine se­cu­rity cam­eras, in­clud­ing some on live feeds that can pan and scan into pre­vi­ously semi­hid­den ar­eas of the park.

And Co­hen’s as­so­ci­a­tion in­vested in pri­vate se­cu­rity of­fi­cers as am­bas­sadors of sorts on the plaza be­tween the park and the Mil­len­nium Bridge — re­mind­ing skate­board­ers and bike rid­ers of the rules, giv­ing out di­rec­tions to pedes­tri­ans and pro­vid­ing watch­ful eyes.

Those ef­forts may have made the park less ap­peal­ing for the tran­sient crowd, but Co­hen and deputy parks di­rec­tor Scott Gil­more more heav­ily credit the work done by Co­hen’s group to at­tract events to the green, in­clud­ing yoga and other ex­er­cise classes.

The June 4 con­cert by Le Pompe Jazz was put on by Swal­low Hill Mu­sic, which planned the event as the first in a monthly sum­mer series at Com­mons Park.

The city made some phys­i­cal changes in the park and on the hill, and Co­hen’s group also worked with the orig­i­nal park de­signer, Mark John­son of Civ­i­tas, to pro­pose about $7 mil­lion in changes that could, if funded, in­clude a nat­u­ral play­ground atop the hill and other changes to draw more peo­ple to the park.

Other city ef­forts helped, some of them con­tro­ver­sial. Those in­cluded home­less sweeps by po­lice up and down the South Platte River and Parks and Re­cre­ation’s six-month ex­per­i­ment in the late sum­mer and fall of 2016 with a park sus­pen­sions pro­gram — a harder-edged stance that Co­hen called “enor­mously help­ful.”

Po­lice is­sued sus­pen­sions that took away in­di­vid­u­als’ ac­cess to a par­tic­u­lar park for 90 days when of­fi­cers sus­pected peo­ple of il­le­gal drug ac­tiv­ity. Nearly half the 40 or so sus­pen­sions were is­sued in Com­mons Park.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Colorado and a lo­cal at­tor­ney suc­cess­fully chal­lenged one man’s sus­pen­sion by point­ing out short­com­ings in the ap­peals process set by the city. Al­though the pro­gram ended in Fe­bru­ary, parks of­fi­cials say city lawyers are work­ing out de­tails for a pos­si­ble re­vival of the pro­gram, and the depart­ment plans to form a work­ing group and seek com­mu­nity in­put.

Some crit­i­cize tac­tics

The co-founder of Sox Place, a down­town drop-in youth cen­ter that has helped many in the Stoner Hill en­clave over the years, sees the changes at Com­mons Park dif­fer­ently.

“Some of what hap­pens is sim­ply tar­get­ing a pop­u­la­tion that can­not af­ford le­gal as­sis­tance when their rights are vi­o­lated,” ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Doyle Robin­son wrote in an email. “Some of this pop­u­la­tion are fight­ing for their lives, for sur­vival, not al­ways do­ing it the way tra­di­tional so­ci­ety wants them to. Each one that is in this pop­u­la­tion has sto­ries of why they are home­less, on the streets, ad­dicted to var­i­ous drugs and lifestyles.”

He urged more un­der­stand­ing and out­reach, with fewer ac­tions aimed at push­ing the group out of the park.

In­deed, the gath­er­ing of youths on the hill largely has dis­persed, al­though some oc­ca­sion­ally stop by. Oth­ers have moved up Lit­tle Raven Street to the City of Cuer­navaca Park, just north of 20th Street, neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents say.

There, a typ­i­cal day finds a smaller group of youths who are blamed by res­i­dents of the Flour Mill Lofts for a re­cent uptick in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity that in­cluded a stab­bing last week­end. Po­lice and parks of­fi­cials now are fo­cus­ing their at­ten­tion on that area, says Scott Gil­more, a deputy di­rec­tor of Parks and Re­cre­ation.

He and Co­hen say the pur­pose of the strate­gies in Com­mons Park was not to push out some peo­ple but to re­store a bal­ance.

“Uni­formly, when I talk to peo­ple in our com­mu­nity here, they don’t look at Com­mons Park as a coun­try club,” Co­hen said. “They look at it as a great mu­nic­i­pal gath­er­ing spot. … It’s just when some­thing gets too much of any­thing — if a con­cert is too loud or if too many trav­el­ers have gath­ered — then, yeah, that’s a prob­lem.”

Gil­more said one les­son of Com­mons Park, which opened in 2000 just as de­vel­op­ers be­gan break­ing ground in the Cen­tral Platte Val­ley, was the need for more ac­tive man­age­ment and or­ga­niz­ing of events and ac­tiv­i­ties.

“Once you start get­ting some reg­u­lar pos­i­tive ac­tiv­ity in the park, it makes peo­ple want to come back into the park,” he said.

Swal­low Hill’s Jazz event was one mea­sure of that suc­cess. The next con­cert is set for 6 p.m. on July 9, with a per­for­mance by Brian Nel­son’s elec­tronic reg­gae act, Red Ninja, and food trucks.

Hanna Ack­er­man, Swal­low Hill’s as­so­ciate con­cert di­rec­tor, says she has high hopes for the series after the June con­cert seem­ingly took off or­gan­i­cally, draw­ing a healthy crowd.

“It was peo­ple pass­ing by and peo­ple who live in the apart­ment build­ings,” she said. “I was re­ally taken aback by how much the lit­tle mi­cro-com­mu­nity wanted some­thing like this.”

Daniel Bren­ner, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Pedes­tri­ans en­joy the sum­mer sun­shine along High­land Bridge in Com­mons Park on Thurs­day. Ef­forts by po­lice and neigh­bor­hood lead­ers have re­duced tran­sient and il­le­gal drug ac­tiv­ity in the park.

Com­mons Park is pop­u­lar. “When I talk to peo­ple in our com­mu­nity, they don’t look at Com­mons Park as a coun­try club. They look at it as a great mu­nic­i­pal gath­er­ing spot,” Don Co­hen says.

Pho­tos by Daniel Bren­ner, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Com­mons Park de­buted in 2000 just as de­vel­op­ers be­gan break­ing ground in the area.

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