New Look for Park Proposed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A landscape architect has been hired by disgruntled merchants to remove the grass in Horton Plaza Park and replace it with flowers and shrubs to discourage loitering by drug dealers and panhandlers.

But before work can begin, the plans must be approved by the City Council, said Ed Foster, a member of the Horton Plaza Park committee.

"The grass will be taken out and replaced with seasonal flowers, with hedges around the perimeter," Foster said. "We will suggest that plaques be put up to designate that the park, including the fountain, is a historical site."

Foster said the estimated cost of the changes is $25,000, which will be covered by surrounding business owners and a vendor selected by the city to sell food and merchandise. If approved, renovations are expected to be completed in July, he said.

"The city wanted to improve access to the park, which has become dominated by street people, drug sellers and users, panhandlers, and people sleeping on the grass," said Daro Quiring, maintenance coordinator of Center City Assn.

To prove their point, the Horton Plaza management last year installed a video camera for five days in a window of Robinson's, the only store with an entrance on Broadway. The tape was edited into a 13-minute video that showed drug deals being made, people putting beer in the fountain, fights, and men urinating in cups, said Ron Oliver, executive vice president of Central City Assn.

"Any time of the day you go to the park, you will see drug deals, and there is always someone with a bottle of booze," Oliver said. "It is against the law to drink in a public park. The homeless aren't the problem, although one may be the symptom of the other. Some homeless people are substance abusers."

"We want to move these people out of the park and give it back to working people and to the city people who pay taxes," Foster said. "If we move them out, then they will be forced to go the centers that can provide help for their drug abuse."

After merchants began complaining in 1988 that the problems were hurting their businesses, City Manager John Lockwood asked Quiring to establish a task force to seek ways to solve the problem.

Steps were taken to improve park conditions. Police patrols were added. Planters were removed because they were being used as urinals. Benches were removed, but will be returned after the renovations.

Oliver said that, after the city removed the benches near the Robinson's entrance, pedestrian traffic increased 62% in two weeks. He said that people would sit on the benches and intimidate customers entering the store.

This is not the first redesign for the park. In 1984, while the shopping center was being built and the park was closed, a community participation process worked with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. His design ideas--including moving the fountain to the northwest corner of the park--were rejected, and the city restored the park to its historical condition. The San Francisco architect said of the seven-month, $125,000 project: "It is stupid to spend all this money to patch up a pipsqueak of a park."

About a year ago, Quiring and representatives of Horton Plaza, the Park and Recreation Department, the San Diego Police Department and nearby businesses began meeting monthly, and they agreed about a month ago on redesigning the park.

To encourage more people to use the park, the city plans to present art exhibitions, musical entertainment, and office luncheons, Quiring said.

Although such activities may bring "desirable people to the park," Ron Buckley, a member of the city Historical Site Board, said he is unconvinced that the proposal is complete or effective by itself.

"We have the same problems in parks across the nation," he said. "And you don't see them rushing to change their parks' designs to solve their problems. An increase of police presence and enforcement will solve the problem."

Foster, who is also marketing director of the U.S. Grant Hotel, said that, in the past two months, the hotel has lost $500,000 in contracts.

"Our clients don't feel safe, especially walking at night and going to restaurants in the area," he said.

Linda Scott, 40, said that she sleeps in the park because there are not enough shelters to house all the homeless people in San Diego.

"This is home to a lot of people," she said. We lay out here and don't hassle anyone. We pick up our own trash. This is our home. If they remove the grass, they will leave us lying on the dirt."

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