Police: Changing Town Square landscape could cut crime

Nathaniel Herz
The Alaska Junior Theater's 30th Anniversary Party at Town Square Park on Wednesday June 8, 2011.
Bob Hallinen
Protesters against corporate America and the gap between the rich and the rest of America gathered in Town Square Park on Saturday, October 8, 2011. 111008
Bob Hallinen
The Town Square ice skating area is resurfaced Saturday evening. A crowd begins to gather at Town Square for the NECA/IBEW Fire & Ice New YearÕs Eve Celebration. The event includes live music, ice skating, fire jugglers, a fireworks show and more.
Marc Lester
A couple kiss on an overcast Sunday evening, July 22, 2012 at the staggered steps of Town Square Park in downtown Anchorage.
JR Ancheta
Town Square is bathed in sunshine in the summer of 2010.
Erik Hill

Over the last 2-1/2 years, a crew of six Anchorage Police Department officers has patrolled downtown, driving away problems from the transit center and helping to shutter the crime-ridden Inlet Inn.

But bad behavior has been persistent at Town Square Park, just a block away from City Hall. There, in the shadows of trees or behind grassy mounds, young people can be spotted doing drugs, having sex, and smoking spice, a synthetic drug that mimics marijuana, according to Sgt. Mark Rein, who leads what's known as the Community Action Policing team downtown.

Along with local businesses and city officials, Rein's group is exploring how Town Square might be changed to stop the bad behavior before it starts. Two members of Rein's team just completed a study that recommends leveling the park's hills, removing some of its trees, and getting rid of seating areas that encourage loitering -- measures Rein thinks could help make Town Square less of a haven for bad behavior.

"We try to figure out root causes, and what we can do to change root causes so we don't continually have to go back there," he said in an interview Thursday. "Nothing will change unless you change the geography."

For now, the recommendations, set to be presented on Friday, are just suggestions, and the city says it won't make any adjustments to the park without first consulting with its neighbors and the public. There are also local laws that could get in the way, thanks to a provision in the city charter that might limit the kinds of modifications that could be made.

But people who work in the area say they would welcome changes that would make the block more inviting.

"It does seem like there's places to hide," said Michelle Cox, the office manager at Polar Bear Gifts, which is across the street from the park's northeast corner. "Some of those paths you wouldn't want to walk down, because someone could jump out at you."

Cox and others who work at businesses next to Town Square said that they regularly witness people in the park, and nearby, who are obviously drunk or on drugs.

Some neighbors believe problems at the park have escalated in recent years.

"The types of behaviors there are significantly more criminal," said Nina Bonito Romine, a co-owner of Kobuk Coffee, which sits on Town Square's northeast corner. "Almost on a daily basis, we pick up drug paraphernalia from our property."

Rein said he did not think that crime had risen substantially at the park since his team had started its work downtown. But he did acknowledge that police hadn't made the same gains there that they'd made in other areas nearby.

Members of two gangs -- the Native Brotherhood and the Downtown Family -- are known to spend time in the park, Rein said.

Data logged by the Downtown Partnership, an association of local property owners, show that Town Square accounted for 10 percent of all the incidents they've recorded so far in 2013. The association's security officers patrol 113 blocks, said Chris Schutte, its executive director.

"The data for the summer has been eye-opening," he said in an interview.

Schutte said he's concerned that the people responsible for the criminal activity are starting to gain a "real strong foothold in the park."

Schutte's group plans to schedule more events and programs in Town Square -- a strategy that he said the Downtown Partnership used to drive troublemakers away from Peratrovich Park, a block to the north.

"The last thing a person drinking a bottle of Monarch wants is kids and music and stuff like that," he said, referring to a brand of vodka.

But he agreed with Rein that the design of the park could probably be improved to make it more welcoming.

One potential hurdle, however, could be the city charter, which has a section on Town Square that could prevent certain modifications, said Darrel Hess, the municipal ombudsman, who has been working with businesses and the Parks and Recreation Department to clean up the park.

"We believe there may be some court decisions limiting elements you could remove," Hess said.

A staff member at the city's parks and recreation department is reviewing documents to see what restrictions exist, if any, said Director John Rodda.

If all else fails, there might be an acoustic solution to some of the park's problems. The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, which overlooks the west side of Town Square, is planning to revive an existing speaker system and use it to broadcast the works of old-world composers into the park during long stretches of the day -- the idea being that denizens who are into drinking and drugs might not care as much for the works of Beethoven and Bach.

"I think there have been lots of studies that classical music is not the favorite music of a 15-year-old," said Nancy Harbour, the center's president. "We're just trying to soften the whole sense of things."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.