Phoenix Park renovation brings focus to complaints about transients, safety

bfortune@herald-leader.comJune 24, 2013 

As the city puts the finishing touches on a renovation of downtown's Phoenix Park, several organizations are exploring solutions to complaints about the transient population that has heavily used the space.

Ginny Ramsey, whose organization Divine Providence Inc. provides multiple services to the homeless, said her group has been reviewing the Phoenix Park situation. "We decided we have to take a leadership role in this," she said.

Divine Providence expects to make an announcement within several days about a new location where its services may be consolidated, and that would include an on-site park that Ramsey thinks will be attractive to homeless people who now go to Phoenix Park.

Hill-n-Dale Christian Church has served Sunday lunch in the park since 2002. On Monday, Gary Blake, a church elder, said the church would be amenable to looking at taking its downtown ministry to another location.

"The city has not come to us and said we need to relocate," Blake said. "It's not our desire to mess up the park."

He said the church sees just hungry people. "It is our desire to give them a hot meal on Sunday afternoon."

At the request of council member Kevin Stinnett, Geoff Reed, the city's commissioner of general services, will update the Urban County Council at its Tuesday work session on the park's renovation and what the city plans to do to ensure safety in the park.

The work on Phoenix Park is expected to cost about $76,000 — with $30,000 from the city, $27,000 from Park Plaza Apartments owner Dennis Anderson and $19,000 from the Lexington Public Library. The downtown park, at East Main Street and South Limestone, is the entry to Park Plaza Apartments and to the Central Library.

The work in Phoenix Park is scheduled to be completed in time for the Fourth of July.

Anderson said he hoped the changes would make the park feel open, safer and more inviting.

"It's definitely going to be clean. They've removed planters that obscure people's vision. Uneven pavers have been replaced. We've redesigned the first floor of Park Plaza so it's lighter, brighter. That makes people feel safe," said Anderson, president of Anderson Communities Inc.

Also during the past four weeks, dead and dying trees have been removed, other trees have been trimmed so people can see from one side of the park to the other, tree wells have been reworked and a new electrical system and better lighting have been installed.

Dated tables and chairs have been taken out, replaced with benches with armrests to keep people sitting upright and prevent lying down.

Anderson has reworked the front of his apartment building into 3,500 square feet of retail space.

"We've got multiple people interested in the space including a deli, a tapas bar and Panera," he said.

In recent years Phoenix Park became a gathering spot for people with nowhere else to go, including some homeless people — although Ramsey questioned how many park users actually were homeless.

"Most of the people there are not homeless," said Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center. "They're not our people."

Councilmember Diane Lawless, whose district includes Phoenix Park, said, "People who claim we've done over the park to get rid of the homeless, that's absolutely not true."

The issue is not homelessness; it's criminal activity in the park, Lawless said. Lexington police have put more officers on bicycles throughout downtown, and that has helped reduce crime in the park.

Anderson said the city has to take an active part in dealing with people who hang out in Phoenix Park and make others feel unsafe.

"We're asking people to come downtown and spend their money, shop and have dinner, go to entertainment venues, but the city has to address the people who congregate in the park, men not wearing shirts, using vulgar language, people hollering back and forth," Anderson said.

"Safety is not only actually being safe; safety is a feeling," he said.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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