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After years as one of the city’s largest, most visible and most notorious unsanctioned homeless encampments, Coronado Park is now slated for closure.
Mayor Tim Keller made the bombshell announcement Monday while speaking to a room full of local business professionals.
“That situation is absolutely unacceptable, so we’re going to stop it. In August we’re closing Coronado Park,” he said during a speech to the New Mexico chapter of NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association. “It doesn’t matter if we know exactly what we’re doing next. It doesn’t matter exactly what the timing is or how we’re going to do it, but we have to do better than what’s happening at Coronado Park.”
In an interview after the speech, Keller reiterated that his administration doesn’t have the plan solidified.
That includes the exact date in August the city will fence the park, how long it will remain shuttered and whether it will even remain a park. The city could potentially use it as a safe outdoor space test site, the mayor’s office said. Safe outdoor spaces are managed, organized sites with rules where people who are homeless can legally camp and have access to toilets, showers and more. The City Council recently voted to make such sites legal, though an effort is already afoot to bar them.
An estimated 75-120 people currently camp nightly at Coronado Park, located on Third Street and Interstate 40, Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael said.
Rael said city employees could start posting flyers of the pending closure as early as this week, and that the city will alert occupants to available services and other housing options.
“There is a bed for every person (who stays at Coronado) to go,” Keller said.
He and Rael specifically noted available space at the city’s existing emergency shelter on the far West Side.
A recent city analysis identified 369 open beds across nine local shelters on a single night in June; more than half — 215 — were at the city’s West Side facility, officials said during a City Council meeting, though they acknowledged that some people are reluctant to go there because it is remote, far from other services, and used to be an old jail.
The decision to close Coronado Park marks a change for Keller, who said as recently as June — when a man was fatally shot at the park — that closing it could make things worse. He said campers would likely disperse into the surrounding neighborhoods, which he said at the time was “something none of us want to see.”
Asked about that reversal Monday, the mayor said the balance had shifted and the park remaining open in its current state is untenable.
“We’re very concerned about what’s going to happen in the neighborhoods, but at this point now, it’s a question of what is worse — looking the other way at violence, at homicide, at rampant drug use, or trying to deal with the problem a different way,” he said. “It has reached the breaking point where even if it’s creating other problems and other brush fires, we’ve got a better chance dealing with that than we do letting this go.”
Max Kauffman, who co-chairs the city’s Mental Health Response Advisory Committee, said the mayor’s announcement came as a surprise. He said that was concerning because the committee is charged with advising the city on issues related to chronic homelessness.
“Now we’re in the position of having to react to it rather than getting ahead of it, helping to make sure that they’re considering all the factors that are relevant to people experiencing homelessness and they’re taking good care in how they’re executing this policy, and whether to execute this policy at all,” Kauffman said.
A mayoral spokeswoman said the city has not consulted with MHRAC because the park situation is urgent and unlawful, but that the city will work with partners prior to closing the park to ensure residents “have the option to get what they need.”
Ricardo Devine, who runs a nearby day shelter that serves about 300-350 people per day, said Coronado Park is not currently safe, but there is no simple answer.
“There’s no true solution; I think that’s the problem,” said Devine, executive director of The Rock at Noonday. “We need more housing, we need more services, but I think if you disperse them, where do they go for the services?”
Prevailing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends officials leave encampments in place unless there are individual housing options available, as displacing residents could potentially increase the spread of coronavirus and break their connections to service providers.
Keller said he believes that the situation at Coronado Park is so dangerous today that it “supersedes” such guidance. In addition to the crime, Rael said some of the park’s trees pose risks and need to be cut down or significantly trimmed.
The president of the area’s neighborhood association said the city had not alerted the group before announcing the park closure or sought its input.
“It’s hard for us to take a position on this — whether or not we think it’s a good or bad idea — if nobody communicates with us and there’s no plan,” Wells Park Neighborhood Association President Doreen McKnight said.
She said she believes that the closure would send park residents into other parts of the neighborhood. While the mayor’s office said the Clean City Program that clears illegal encampments would step up patrols in the area, she said she was not sure what effect that would have.
McKnight said she also wants to know what the closure would mean for the daily shelter pickup and dropoffs that occur there. The park has been the city’s shelter bus stop for years.
A mayoral spokeswoman said the pickup/dropoff spot would change, but it has not been finalized.
She said the city has not yet sought neighborhood feedback about the park closure because it is still working out the details.
“Coronado Park is an issue that frequently comes up with surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. It’s an urgent public safety issue and we can’t look the other way,” mayoral spokeswoman Ava Montoya said in a written response to Journal questions.
The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce called the announcement “unexpected and welcome.”
City Council President Isaac Benton, whose district includes the park, said he is pleased with the mayor’s decision. He said it is not “viable” to leave the park as it is now.
“I see how it’s gotten worse, and we’ve got to shut it down,” said Benton, noting that he hears constant complaints from constituents about the situation.
Councilor Trudy Jones, who was present for Keller’s announcement, said she too is happy about the impending closure but that too much remains unknown.
“Do I think it’s a great idea? Sure — if we have plan B. What are we doing with the people we’re taking out?” she said. “If we’re just shuffling them out of there to shuffle them to another area, that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”