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Roosevelt Park in Peril

By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
    Black and white, Depression-era photos show men with picks and shovels laboring to transform a once "sandy, garbage-strewn arroyo" into what would become Albuquerque's Roosevelt Park.
    "The smooth slopes of the arroyo were all crafted, not by the big machinery you see nowadays efficiently grading the land— it was done by the toil of people who had no work," said Corrales landscape architect Bill Perkins.
    "One of the reasons this is an historic park is because it was created in such unique circumstances, where the federal government was promoting projects that gave people work."
    Some 70 years after Roosevelt Park was created, the city is embarking on a plan to rehabilitate the southeast side park— a 14.8-acre amoeba-shaped site known for its rolling, grassy hills and towering Siberian elms.
    Perkins has been hired by the city to create a rehabilitation master plan, a not-so-simple job that aims to balance the park's historic character with present-day demands.
    City officials and area residents say the park needs help.
    "It's gotten old to the point where just regular maintenance isn't enough," Mayor Martin Chávez said.
    Chávez said he was "shocked" to see its "rundown" condition during a spring visit. Now, the mayor is pushing for rehabilitation to begin by the city's tricentennial celebration, which starts in 2005. The master plan will help identify the cost, but rough estimates range from nearly $2 million to more than $3 million.
    "Roosevelt is probably the single-most important park in Albuquerque from a historical perspective," Chávez said.
    The park was built between late 1933 and 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression, with local statesman and Roosevelt friend and disciple Clyde Tingley leading the effort.
    "Roosevelt Park is important not only for its historic landscape associated with the early urban parks movement in the Southwest, but for its association with New Deal public works projects in New Mexico," David Kammer, a project historian who is working with Perkins, wrote in a draft historical report.
    Funding from the Civil Works Administration launched the project and supplied more than 200 people with jobs. The CWA was one of several relief agencies set up by the federal government to provide work for the Depression unemployed.
    Roosevelt Park has been described as "one of the Southwest's best examples of New Deal landscaping." It's listed in the state register of cultural properties, the national register of historic places and earned city landmark status in 1990.
    Landscape architect C. Edmund "Bud" Hollied designed the "frontier pastoral" park, which was originally named Terrace Park. The style incorporated elements of 18th and 19th century English landscape practices, such as terraces, scenic vistas and random groves of trees.
    More than 2,200 trees and shrubs were planted there. They included umbrella catalpas, 300 Siberian elms and 300-plus evergreen shrubs and trees, according to the historical report. Deciduous trees, shrubs and vines included dogwood, California privet, lilac and 20 kinds of honeysuckle. About 4,500 pounds of bluegrass and 1,700 pounds of clover were planted to cover the grounds.
    "(Tingley) created just an incredible sanctuary," said Michele Baldwin of the nearby Silver Hill Neighborhood Association, who sits on an advisory committee for the rehabilitation plan.
    "Today," she said, "the park has been kind of a disaster. I have three kids and I wouldn't take them there, for several reasons."
    Access is one problem, she said. Lead and Coal are high-speed streets that have cut off area residents, she said. Drug use and the proliferation of homeless in the park are other problems residents mention. Some people also would like to see amenities added, such as play equipment or bathrooms.
    Physically, the park is suffering, thanks in part to an outdated and inefficient watering system. Some of the old trees and shrubs have died, while some turf and masonry walls are deteriorating.
    Ruth Koury of the Sycamore Neighborhood Association, another advisory group member, said residents have been pushing for the improvement project for at least a decade.
    "Really, what the neighborhoods want is to restore it to become a safe park again and preserve the historical nature of the park," she said.
    "But there are modern-day challenges that come along with that," she said. "It's completely surrounded by residential uses on every side that isn't (used by) APS. So how do you respect the residential area and continue to have a park that draws a regional user group?"
    For instance, she asked, what do you do about parking, security and lighting?
    The park users come from well beyond the nearby neighborhoods. They range from families on weekend picnics to University of New Mexico and TVI students and Presbyterian Hospital employees and visitors taking breaks. In the city, Roosevelt Park is one of three designated dog parks, and it supports one of two disc golf courses.
    Perkins said a two-part process is under way to create the master plan. The design is being paid for with 2001 city bond money.
    A historical analysis and studying how the park serves the community are initial steps, Perkins said. A meeting will be held Dec. 11 to gather public comment.
    From there, different design concepts will be developed, with the idea of "preserving and protecting those things that are important, but exploring how other ideas might be incorporated into the park to make it work better," he said.
    That balancing act could prove a challenge, Perkins said. Take water use, for example.
    "(Roosevelt) was much loved because it was an oasis at the time when the city of Albuquerque's water supply was thought to be ample, great, large, accommodating," Perkins said. "Well, now, we have a very different set of standards.
    "So how do we achieve both preservation of historic qualities yet respect the need for conservation?"
    Perkins estimates that a draft master plan will be available for public review in June.
    A public meeting will be held Dec. 11 to discuss the rehabilitation of Roosevelt Park. It will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Heights Community Center, 823 Buena Vista SE.