Sunday, July 15, 2018

Carlton: In a city's battle with the homeless, a park disappears

A nice thing about Tampa's urban neighborhoods is that somebody actually thought about parks.

Small, unexpected "pocket parks" pepper the place, rectangles of green space the length of a city block or two. They are pleasant stretches of grass and benches and shady trees for anyone to sit under — nice planning in a town not always known for it.

But one of those unassuming little squares of respite is suddenly no more — the backstory being Tampa's ongoing battle with the homeless people who persevere here.

A tall black metal fence recently sprouted around a park that was once open green space next to a big law firm just north of downtown. Placards warn "NO TRESPASSING KEEP OUT,'' and every entrance is padlocked. Gone is the welcoming city sign that said "Phil Bourquardez Park."

And it all happened so quietly that even Frank Reddick, the City Council member representing the area, didn't know the park was closed down. Make that: the park that wasn't a park even though the city called it a park, but more on that civic jabberwocky in a minute.

Named for the son of a pioneer Tampa family, Bourquardez Park was known in these parts as Bacardi Park, and yes, like the rum. It wasn't one of your fancier spaces like Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park sprawled along the river to the south. This one was closer to Metropolitan Ministries and the Salvation Army shelter, and the homeless flocked to it. You could drive by and see dozens of people sprawled in the grass using backpacks as pillows or enjoying the shade. Sometimes cars would stop and hand out food and fresh fruit.

Residents and businesses complained, and the city determined the parks department was putting an "overabundance of resources" into taking care of debris, unclaimed property and sanitary issues, a city spokeswoman said.

So it was closed.

Interestingly, the $32,784 fence went up the Friday before the big weekend festivities downtown for the college football championship match — the same weekend that volunteers who had been feeding the homeless in another city park for years suddenly got arrested for it.

Surely a coincidence.

Now wait a minute, you might be thinking. How can the city close a park without asking anyone? Generally, it can't. The city cannot, say, sell off a park without voters agreeing to it in a referendum, and for good reason. Parks are for the people. Like libraries, they are free and open to everyone — couples taking a stroll before dinner at the swanky nearby Ulele restaurant and homeless people with nowhere else to go.

But those rules apply only to a long list of the city's "dedicated" parks, and Bourquardez wasn't one of them, more of a "grassy open space," according to the city. The city shut down the sort-of park legally — and also indefinitely, and with no plans to sell or re-purpose the property.

Look, I get there were problems. And I get that there are no easy answers to the thorny and multifaceted issues of homelessness in a big city.

But doesn't it seem a waste and a shame when usable public green space sits behind a locked gate because we can't find a way to make it work with limited park hours, enforcement or more creative solutions?

It's hard to believe shutting down a park because homeless people use it is the best we can do.

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