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Crime diminishes the beauty of Independence Plaza Park

Updated: 2013-08-02T01:59:38Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Water spritzes from twin alabaster fountains surrounded by brick pavers, hedges and wrought iron fencing anchored to 13 stone pillars.

What a shame, neighbors say.

Independence Plaza Park could almost be the backdrop for photos in a wedding album –– were it not for the hookers, drug pushers and occasional stray bullet.

“It’s kind of a den of illegal activity,” said Dean Richards, who lives two doors to the south.

Indeed, about the only photos being taken are by two security cameras attached to the trunk of a tall elm tree near the entryway off Independence Boulevard.

For years, Richards has been pleading with the parks department to help curb the crime and suspicious activity he often witnesses while out in the yard with his wife and three young children.

It was at Richards’ urging that the security cameras were added last year. They helped deter some of the nonsense, but not for long. The prostitutes were soon back, and so were the druggies and drunks. In broad daylight, men shouted obscenities and continued to unzip their pants and urinate in plain view of his kids.

So recently Richards pestered the parks department until a crew came out and removed the last of the three benches in the southern half of the 1.7-acre park, which is cut in two by busy Independence Boulevard, between Brooklyn and Park avenues.

The idea was to make it less attractive as a hangout. But about all it did was make it so no one had a comfortable place to sit and gaze at the fountains.

As for the bad guys, police say, they seem perfectly willing to plop themselves down on the wall that supports a fence along the southern boundary.

“It’s a detriment to our neighborhood,” said Richards, who adds that he and his neighbors would be better off if the city closed the park for good. “It’s hurting us.”

While understanding his frustration, city officials aren’t about to eliminate one of the original elements of the parks and boulevard system plan set out by George Kessler in 1893.

But the plight of Independence Plaza Park has recently sharpened a long-running debate by city officials, police and neighborhood leaders over how best to deal with Kansas City’s problem parks.

Is it a matter of increasing police patrols? Adopting better security measures? Or might there be a third approach, as in more community involvement?

The consensus is that it has to be a combination of all three, with that third element being key.

Said Tom Ribera, president of the Independence Plaza Neighborhood Association: “ We have to take it back.”

False hope

It’s not easy reclaiming a park that’s gone bad.

Independence Plaza is proof of that. Twenty years ago, neighbors were beseeching city officials to fix the same crime problems the park is experiencing today.

Here’s the lead paragraph from a 1992 news story in The Star that could easily have been written last week:

“An Independence Avenue park with shade trees and a large playground set is used far more by criminals than families and should be shut down at night, area residents say.”

The parks department refused that request.

But that 1990s campaign for park improvements did lead to stepped-up police patrols and $600,000 in park upgrades that many hoped would restore order. By making the park more attractive to law-abiding people, those good elements would drive out the bad, or so went the theory.

Two neighborhood associations pushed for the change, as the northern part of the park is in Pendleton Heights and the southern in the Independence Plaza neighborhood.

The playground equipment on the park’s north side was upgraded and the landscaping improved in 1998. The south side got new fountains, the fence and what turned out to be a false sense of hope.

“It’s amazing what a beautiful fence does for a park,” said the Independence Plaza association president at that time, Josephine Carroll. “It changes the attitude of people, I think.”

Carroll is no longer with us, but Lee Lambert, another one of those who worked on the project, said he too was hopeful.

“We thought we had it pretty well cleaned up at one time,” he said. “We pictured it as a place where people would come to have weddings and things like that.”

Some public events were held there on the south side of the street. Residents came to visit and police patrols picked up. But over time the street crime that has plagued Independence Boulevard for decades gravitated back to the park and decent folks kept their distance.

Nowadays, Richards rarely sees anyone in the park who is there merely to enjoy it.

“You never see families there,” he said.

That’s not true of the park on the north side of Independence Boulevard. Moms and dads watch their kids romp on the playground equipment, but not all that many. The shady characters who hang out there keep people away, said Jessica Ray, president of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association.

Another approach

But rather than take the tack that Richards has on the south side of the street, Ray has been encouraging folks in Pendleton Heights to come to the park each night around dusk.

“Taking the benches out of the park is not the answer,” Ray said. “Using the park is the answer. When the good goes in, the bad goes out.”

And that’s what’s happening, she believes. On the nights that her neighbors are there to toss the football or just hang out, it’s less likely that anyone will be dealing drugs and soliciting for sex.

At times, they have offered to help homeless people get services.

“We’re trying to engage,” Ray said, “not just run people off.”

Ribera said his neighborhood association would have trouble duplicating that effort because the residents of Independence Plaza are lower income and less willing to participate in activities like neighborhood cleanups.

“I’m always calling for volunteers,” he said, “but I don’t get anywhere.”

But Bobbi Baker-Hughes, president of the Northeast Chamber of Commerce, said the area’s community improvement district is going to help by staging an “art in the park” event soon in the park’s southern half.

Meanwhile, the parks department promises to look at possible changes in landscaping that could reduce some of the crime, such as cutting back bushes where illegal activity occurs.

The police say they continue to respond to calls about illicit activity in the park, but they could use some help from the parks department.

So at the request of the police department, the park board is for the first time seriously considering supporting an ordinance that would set closing hours for Independence Plaza and a couple of other problem parks in the Old Northeast.

Whether anything comes of it, it’s hard to say, but both the chief of police and the president of the park board are meeting on it, said Councilman Scott Wagner.

The signs now posted in the park announcing a dusk-to-dawn closing period are not backed up by law.

“Is it going to be a solve-all for those problems? Absolutely not,” said Master Patrol Officer James Schriever with Central Patrol. “But it would be a tool we could use.”

As for the benches that were removed with a cutting torch this summer, parks superintendent Forrest Decker said they are going to be replaced. Most likely they will be installed in areas that are less secluded than before, which may or may not discourage the drug dealers and prostitutes from setting up shop.

Richards was none too thrilled to hear that news from a reporter given that, as he sees it, “things have been pretty quiet over there” since the benches were removed.

His prediction: “I guess I’ll be calling them again because it’s going to be a problem all over again.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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