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Compass: Don't turn Town Square into a flat square

Town Square Park is a relaxing green oasis in downtown Anchorage flanked with grassy mounds and a few patches of dense spruce. The berms spare adjacent businesses from the full impact of outdoor concerts and serve to keep street noise out. In fact, the white tents and activities of these events are hardly noticeable because the little hills create an effective, enclosed space. This is a calming feature amid our busy downtown.

Now the police and downtown businesses say that gangs and illegal activities in the park have increased, and their solution is to level the hills, trees and seating areas. These enhancements are exactly what invite the public to use this precious downtown public space.

Before we let the police design our public spaces, let's ask how chasing out the hoodlums will do anything but kick the can down the road to the next neighborhood, leaving a concrete slab in the wake.

I consider it illogical to level a park in an attempt to curb behavior -- behavior that may not exist tomorrow. Illegal activities aren't remedied by changing the landscape. The problems will simply surface elsewhere. While low-level lighting is an obvious amenity, axing trees or their lower limbs is not.

A few years ago the police tried a different approach -- they started visiting the social organizations of some of the gangs. Why can't they do that again? As parents, we need all the help we can get and those where English is a second language may need support in recognizing and dealing with certain behaviors. Personally, I'd like to drag each ruffian by the collar to his/her parents for discipline.

Before condemning our park to a concrete death, it's worth knowing what dedicated citizens suffered to secure its existence:

• In 1965, the public voted to create a downtown park, but the project languished until the Egan Center construction in the early 1980s.

• After more petition drives and votes, the park was dedicated in the city charter in 1984. However, the parcel remained a parking lot.

• Continued delays by the municipality forced more legal action. Finally in 1987, the last building was removed, air rights were obtained to protect sunlight into the park, and the park moved to reality.

• In 2005, a new threat appeared when park improvements were tacked onto the E Street corridor project. The public was ignorant of the plan to remove the E Street mound to entice people downtown for revenue-generating events that would spill from the park into the street -- with traffic blocked off.

Publicity forced the mayor to open a real public process. The E Street hill was saved, but much of the park ended up with concrete benches in place of grassy slopes that children loved to roll on during concerts.

• A defining protection for the park came in 2007 when the Downtown Comprehensive Plan came before the Planning and Zoning Commission. The accumulated knowledge of the graying members who had experienced the park's tenuous history had them insert a clause that required any changes to Town Square to come before the PZC for a hearing. The downtown plan was made law by the Assembly on Dec. 11, 2007.

Our desire for an intimate park should not be forfeited because of illegal activities. Neither should the laws protecting the park and our right for public involvement be ignored.

We have the police department for enforcing the laws, while city planners have the job of translating, into reality, our wishes for public space and for an appealing city. Let's not confuse those roles.

Dianne Holmes is a longtime Anchorage community activist.