In the ongoing discussion about finding solutions to the city’s homeless problem, the Visalia City Council held a work session last week about making improvements to Lincoln Oval Park. The five candidates running for city council also let their opinions be known about the Oval and the homeless issue in both the Visalia Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters candidate’s forums.
North Visalia residents and businesses around the Oval, along with the city, have been in discussions over the past five years about how to improve the area. This is Visalia’s oldest district and is steeped in history.
Commuting every day from Goshen around the turn of the century, two of my great aunts attended Visalia’s first high school, located where the park is today, and tied up their horse and buggy on the hitching posts behind the school. After the location was no longer used as a place of education the school was torn down and Lincoln Oval Park was built. Visalia is not alone in the fact that its oldest district is now a hot spot for illegal activity and transients. Many cities in the United States and Europe face the same problem and it takes an extraordinary level of commitment by all parties concerned to rid these historic districts of crime.
Working to make this park a source of city pride started with the North Side Advisory Committee (NVAC), made up of neighbors, businesses, police and a city council member, Steve Nelsen. The idea surfaced to completely demolish the park, a sentiment echoed in some comments to the Visalia Times-Delta, and then implement a complete redesign. In the end, it was decided that building off the park’s existing amenities would be more cost-effective, using grants, donations and the city’s California Development Block Grants (CDBG).
The NVAC took more than 20 ideas and narrowed them down to five priorities that they felt would make the park a place where families would feel safe bringing their children, picnicking or attending events. The city owns Lincoln Oval Park so the NVAC had to first get the approval from the Parks and Recreation Commission. The commission approved their plan in August.
At the October 7 city council meeting, Vincent Elizondo, of the Parks and Recreation Commission, presented the following five suggested improvements:
1. Install a new park playground, shade cover and ground cover. The current playground is about 20 years old and out of state compliance. It is scheduled to be removed in the near future. Estimated cost is $155,000.
2. Install new sidewalk to create a walking path around the perimeter of the park. Estimated cost is $80,000.
3. Install four new park security lights and park cameras. The additional lighting would help the Visalia Police Department to visually inspect the park, and the cameras would put additional eyes on the park during certain hours of operation. The security cameras have been highly successful at the city’s skate park. In addition to the CIP costs, there are also monthly maintenance fees for the cameras of $1,200 per month. Estimated cost is $120,000.
4. Improve the small amphitheater north of the Oval Service Center with a shade cover and install additional electrical improvements for outdoor special events and performances. Estimated cost is $140,000.
5. Install 3-4’ high black wrought iron fencing around the east side of the park, adjacent to Highway 63, for safety purposes. The idea is to direct walking and bike traffic to the pedestrian crosswalks. Part of the project would include additional irrigation improvements to plant red roses in a new small planter area between the new fence and the street curb. Estimated cost $60,000.
Council Member Bob Link started off the discussion by saying that he didn’t see the point of putting in a new playground until the park is completely cleaned up. “I don’t want to put money into it until then,” he said. He also wants to wait and see how successful the shopping cart ordinance is and how the Visalia Rescue Mission plan works to change the park’s environment by bringing in activities and events to the little amphitheater.
Council Member Greg Collins felt the same as Link. He was not supportive of doing all the renovations at once or spending the money and then have a failed system. “I want to wait and see.” Collins felt that if we can create the momentum for positive change, and the number of homeless goes down, then he would weigh the possibility of spending money. “I grew up down the street from the Oval. There has been a huge evolution, and not for the better,” he said. “I do not want to spend a tremendous amount of money on the Oval when can you walk a half a block down the street and it looks like a war zone.”
Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen, who is on the NVAC, said that he has been working on this issue for the four years he has been on the council. He was very supportive of pursuing money sources to improve the park, especially for the lights and cameras. “That could bring a big change in the element that comes to the park.” But he didn’t understand why the playground was their number one priority seeing as there is no parking and no one is going to take their kids to a park where there is drug dealing and prostitution.
He expressed the desire to see the changes that the lights, cameras and shopping cart ordinance do first. “I disagree with Greg though; it’s not a warzone.”
Mayor Amy Shuklian was clearly agitated by the attitude of her fellow council members and voiced her frustration.
“The Oval has been put on the back burner for years, even more so than the animal shelter. The CDBG just spent $150,000 on a splash pad at Rawhide Stadium but the Oval just gets talked about. We could have done something before it got to the point it is today. It’s been neglected for too long.”
Nelsen explained that there has been no consensus among the businesses and residents on the north side on what to do about the park. He said that the worst meeting he ever had was with the north side merchants because no one could agree.
Shuklian responded that, “It doesn’t matter if there is a consensus. We don’t need permission. It is city property. We have not done the basic things for our city park.”
Two speakers agreed with Shuklian. Carla Calhoun, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said that it is a mistake to wait.
It takes many things to change an environment. Approving the proposal may attract new businesses to the area and create some synergy. Calhoun explained that we shouldn’t lose the momentum. Many people have been working on this and “we should take advantage of the opportunity.”
Ryan Stillwater, events coordinator for the VRM, feels that the Oval is a viable place right now and that we shouldn’t wait. He said that right now three thousand people can attend a ticketed event at the Oval. “At what point does it become viable? I just want to go back to the residents and property owners and tell them someone cares.”
During the two forums last week, city council candidates had a chance to elaborate on their ideas about how to clean up the Oval and what they would do about the homeless. Although there are homeless and transients all over Visalia, the discussion focused on North Visalia. Collins introduced a concept advocated by homeless activists in Fresno. “Maybe we can designate an area, I think Soroptimist Park for example,” he said. “We fence it so they are secure. We provide Porta Potties so they have a place to go to the bathroom. We provide water so they have fresh water to drink. That would allow us to provide some services that would enhance their quality of life and then you begin to work with them on an individual basis.”
This concept is new for Visalia but already in practice in other cities, such as Olympia, Washington; Eugene, Oregon; and Ventura. A human rights group in Portland, Oregon, Right to Dream Too, has set up a similar homeless camp on city-owned property, and their city council is currently debating making it permanent. Advantages of such camps are many. Couples and families can stay together, there is no drug and alcohol testing, and no requirement to attend a religious service. Another big advantage is that the homeless do not have to pack up and leave every day. The Visalia Rescue Mission does not have the resources to accommodate couples or families nor do they have the beds to accommodate the more than 700 homeless in Visalia.
Council candidate Vincent Salinas reminded the audience during the League of Women Voter’s forum that it is written in Visalia’s charter that, “the city is to provide for the care of the indigent.” He also took issue with the city putting in $6 million into an animal shelter. “We need to be as compassionate about human beings as we are about animals.”
Council candidate Michael Brown said that the homeless can make people feel uncomfortable going downtown. “I believe we need a more comprehensive solution to the homeless problem. We need to move the services away from the downtown.” He also does not agree with the shopping cart ordinance.
Nelsen also asked the audience, “Please don’t give money to the homeless and don’t give them food. Tell them where to go so their needs can be identified.” Once the homeless get to the Visalia Rescue Mission for a meal, it could be the first step into getting back into life and off the streets. “I don’t want them out of sight, out of mind,” said Nelsen.
At the end of the work session, the city council put off a vote approving the five proposed improvements to the park. They did authorize staff to bring them cost estimates for putting up security lights and cameras, a tactic that made a huge difference when installed at Recreation Park and the skate park. They also asked for cost estimates on putting up fencing along Highway 63.
Besides the North Visalia Advisory Committee proposal, two major improvements are in the works or already completed. The city just demolished the Oval’s public bathrooms that were the focal point of illegal activity. Also, the Lincoln Oval Street Improvement Project, a capital investment of $850,000, is set to begin construction in the summer of 2014.