Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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Closed Circle Park never looked better

Kasey Baker walks slowly, a trespasser in a world of her own making, past the curlicued labyrinth in Huntridge Circle Park, the rainbow-colored pipes to spray water on kids, and finally the spinning, martini glass-shaped picnic tables.

What child wouldn't love this park?

"It's just so sad," she says.

Circle Park in Las Vegas is, after all, her baby - one of the first major projects completed by the 32-year-old, UNLV-trained architect, and one of the first to employ the socially conscious architecture that was part of her graduate thesis. Before redesigning the park, she met with 40 to 50 neighbors to hear about their wishes.

And, for a while, it worked. She would walk the park and smile at the occasional concert, the picnickers, the kids frolicking in the grass. Her stroll Friday morning was as criminal trespasser.

By city order last month, the park was closed because a homeless man accused another of breaking sprinkler heads, and the accused responded by repeatedly driving an 8-inch knife into his accuser's chest, killing him.

Baker, who owns a home two blocks away, stops along a path that bisects the 3-acre park-on-a-median of Maryland Parkway. "This is the best it's ever looked," she says. "And it's closed."

Indeed, with no one sleeping in rags along the walls during the day, or sitting for hours on the concrete amphitheater that was supposed to be a draw for summertime concerts or theatrical acts, the park looks just as it was designed to look: pastoral, festive, an almost-slice of Summerlin in downtown Las Vegas.

That was the design. Then reality took over.

Since reopening in November 2003, the park has been a haven for many of Southern Nevada's estimated 15,000 homeless people.

What's funny, Baker says, smiling sadly, is that even during those neighborhood meetings in 2002, some downtown veterans insisted it would never work. For starters, they noted that the park is situated on a 3-acre median in the middle of a road that, when built in 1941, accommodated traffic from just 8,000 residents.

Today, you need only look at the numerous skid marks on the curvy road - or try to walk across it at a leisurely pace at almost any time of day - to understand that conditions have changed.

Skeptics warned that not enough homeowners would use the park to push away the homeless, who, in any event, would never abandon what they considered their grounds.

"People were split about 50-50," Baker says. "Some said, 'Close it forever.' But others thought if it just got some use, the homeless would stay away."

The park's design took the homeless into account. There is no shrubbery, no deep berms, nothing to hide behind. "It was basically designed in 2-D," Baker says.

She walks up and over a grassy knoll toward the park's flowery sculpture: gigantic film reels from nearby historic Huntridge Theater atop three wavy iron rods jutting into the air. Baker and many of her friends - UNLV professors, city and county workers, artists and others - sold their homes in the wall-to-wall confines of Summerlin or Green Valley to move into this area of older, bigger lots. New for old, but with character.

If not for the homeless, might this park have been their jewel?

"I'm torn all the time by it," Baker says, nodding. There were plans, and talk and great excitement about the activities expected to fill the park. "Instead, it's homeless-filled."

It's fair to say that a large percentage of her liberal friends would be just as torn, but would conclude the same.

Baker's next-door neighbor, Elena Pellinen, a 30-year-old mother of two who teaches Spanish at Bishop Gorman High School, says she tried to use the park as much as possible. In fact, just hours before the fatal stabbing, her son and husband were there flying a toy airplane.

But even her 5-year-old, she says, was uncomfortable that day. "He was saying, 'I don't like going to that park; there's no kids, there's only old people sleeping on the ground. I hate that park.' "

She wonders aloud: Had playground equipment been part of the design, would more people with children have used it and pushed the homeless away? Four years ago, the design committee decided against swings and slides for two reasons.

They wanted it to have the feel of an "urban" park, the likes of which you'd find in San Francisco or Portland, Ore., where people walk for lunch, visit with friends, have picnics.

They also worried about the appeal of playground equipment to kids who lived nearby. "Maryland Parkway is kind of a dangerous street to cross," Pellinen says. "So we didn't want to make it so appealing to kids that they'd just run across the street to get there."

"I can see the reasons we did it," she adds. "But it just doesn't work out."

In the architectural world, the park is a hit. In 2004, its design won an award from the American Institute of Architects Nevada. "Designers strived to provide the distinctive character and creativity that the residents want," judges wrote. "Emphasis has been placed on the park being a unique experience, full of community art and a place that nostalgically related to the existing architecture, yet foresees a future of positive change."

Positive change might be forthcoming, Baker says, if not for the park, then perhaps for the homeless who made it theirs.

"Sure, it's sad to be closed, but on the other hand, it's opened up this debate, and it's a question that has to be answered: What do we do about the homeless?" she says, falling back into idealist mode. "If it pushes that debate closer to some reasonable solution, I'd be happy about that."

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