Monday, May 4, 2015

City steps up police presence in Centennial Park

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2015 at 4:42 PM

The Little Rock Police Department has assigned an extra patrol to the Centennial Park area after a complaint by a property owner got Mayor Mark Stodola's attention. 

Paul Dodds, who lives on West 17th Street and Park and whose company Urban Frontier LLC has fixed up 10 properties for sale and rent and owns several more — including a couple near the park, emailed Stodola, the city Board of Directors and the police chief on Sunday. Stodola today directed City Manager Bruce Moore to increase "directed patrols" in the park area and "have Entergy light this place up like it is daytime. With summer break upon us we need to stifle this activity before it gets worse." 

Centennial, which is bound by 16th and 17th streets on the north and south and Wolfe and Battery on the east and west, was a gathering spot for the Crips street gang in the 1980s and '90s, as documented in the film "Bangin' in the Rock." A visit to the park today found several cars parked and men dressed in blue — the gang's color — hanging around one of the Wolfe Street entrances to the park, where Centennial School was once located and where its bell tower still stands. 

A woman on the Battery Street side of the park — the quiet side, she said — told me, "They tell me it belongs to the Crips," referring to the park. She said she had heard someone say the area was "going back like it was in the '80s." She said she does not wear red — the color of rival street gang the Bloods — just to be on the safe side. "You just have to live with it and pray and don't be scared."

Dodds' email is on the jump.

On Saturday evening May 2, Wolfe Street east of Centennial Park was out of control, yet again. On May 3, the party continued with perhaps 15 people drinking in public, loitering and cars blocking traffic. This ongoing illegal party is just the way it is these days. Please stop it.

In addition to intensified police patrols, please install security cameras in the Centennial Park tower and at each end of Wolfe Street between 15th and 16th. There are almost no lights in the Park or on Wolfe St, as the party goers shoot them out. These, and the cameras, must be checked and replaced as needed. Several dilapidated rent houses and a burn out on Wolfe St. facing the park may be part of the party. A SWAT team including code enforcement, child protective services and the police must ensure that all these houses are safe and on the right side of the law. They are not now. Please reclaim this street from the criminals who now dominate it. This is not rocket science. It just takes City will and action.

In addition to increasing patrols on this street, I urge the City also to reach out to Arkansas Childrens’ Hospital and Arkansas Baptist College, copied here, asking them to extend their patrols to cover this block of Wolfe Street until it is stabilized. The chaos hurts them too. I am also copying the Presidents of CHINI and of WANA.

Over the past decade, I have invested over $1,600,000 in the Central High Historic District where I live. I just bought several homes within earshot of the Park, with plans to invest $250,000 more to restore them. I was not aware of how bad Centennial Park has become. I then heard mid-day shots and screaming in the park, right after I bought a house on it. I hesitate to invest while the gang party continues. Please provide the public safety and order I need to do my work.

While the area has improved, all around me are still empty houses with broken windows, alleys filled with trash and cars with flat tires. I placed multiple 311 requests over six months to clean up a filthy alleyway on 13th Street, behind one of my houses. All were ignored. Some nice 311 employees recently told me that they never cleaned alleys in this neighborhood, as a matter of policy. Here, your city alleys here are in deplorable condition. Apparently you feel no obligation to clean them. You should.

Unsafe and unsecured properties can wait for years without fines or court action, while the city fails to board buildings to ensure their safety. Needless demolitions of historic buildings continue at taxpayer expense. The City’s overly restrictive notice requirements and refusal to use its full legal tools, let scofflaw owners away scott free. My neighbors and I are left with the burden both of their neglect, and of the city’s sluggish and often poor decisions.

My multiple calls, visits and attempts to get the City to pay attention and bring real change rarely bring any response, and never quickly. It’s really discouraging. While the gradual restoration of the Central High area is happening, it happens largely despite City Hall, rather than because of it. Good government can and does make a difference. Little Rock needs to do better.

Please, do whatever you can in your power to take Centennial Park from the gangs, our alleys from the trash heap and our historic homes from risk of demolition. Please make it safe for me to invest, and us to live in peace. Only you can get this done. Thank you for your efforts and attention.

City Director Joan Adcock also responded to Dodds, writing that it was "unacceptable" and she would bring it up at tomorrow's city board meeting.

In another email to neighbors and downtown activists, Dodds wrote, 

The low point for me came yesterday when a rather unhelpful policeman came to visit me in response to my repeated calls. He was full of “it’s not my department” and “we are powerless to do anything” comments, and spat repeatedly in my yard as we spoke. When I asked about sending in undercover narcotics agents to help break up the ongoing narco-prostitute street fair on that section of Wolfe Street, his response was concern that any agent could be at risk of assault. 

click to enlarge Dodds at a duplex he will renovate at the corner of 17th and Wolfe — if the activity in the park slows down.
  • Dodds at a duplex he will renovate at the corner of 17th and Wolfe — if the activity in the park slows down.
Dodds said he was on the phone with his insurance agent at a house he bought recently on 16th Street, directly across from the park, and heard shots. ("Not good when you are talking to your insurance agent," he quipped.) He thinks an easy first step the city should do would be to remove the chain link fence around the park, which he believes makes it easier for groups to claim the park as their own by loitering at the entrances.

The developer, who advocates for city measures to more quickly deal with abandoned properties before they reach the point of no return, moved into neighborhood in 2004. He has used state and federal historic tax credits and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program that helps people buy first-time houses at affordable costs. Several of the properties Dodds has bought were crack houses; he just bought one house at the corner of Wolfe and 17th Street for $673. He'll remove the siding down to the original clapboard for historic tax credits; he expects to invest about $100,000 in it. You can see a couple of properties he has bought and will fix up for rental or sale at this page on his website.

click to enlarge Marcus Holt at his house on 17th Street: He, too, is concerned about what's happening on Wolfe Street.
  • Marcus Holt at his house on 17th Street: He, too, is concerned about what's happening on Wolfe Street.
Today's trip to the area reminded me of an encounter I had with  Jesse Jackson when he was in town for the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library. He told me and a group gathered by him that he had just visited Central High and was appalled at the condition of the neighborhood surrounding such a significant site. Things are better today, thanks to preservation-minded residents who have created a design overlay district and have restored several of the houses to their former grandeur, and folks like Dodds who are fixing up houses.

Marcus Holt, a baker at Panera Bread who  with his wife bought a house at 2120 W. 17th St. from Dodds in 2011, said he too was concerned about the increase in activity on Wolfe Street. He takes his two little girls to the playground installed at Centennial by Arkansas Children's Hospital several years ago. "But if there's a large group" of men hanging out, "that will deter us," he said, and he'll take them to play elsewhere.

Dodds was notified today by Sgt. Cheryl Wood with the Special Assignment-COP (Community Oriented Police) that an extra patrol would be added to all shifts.

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