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Emails describe build-up of safety concerns, illegal activity before Civic Center Park closure

Internal emails indicate Civic Center Park, Denver's downtown landmark, spiraled out of control for months before it was closed to the public.

DENVER — Internal emails sent before Civic Center Park’s closure describe “heavy drug use and very little respect for the public space," while other messages express worry about where the homeless population living at the downtown Denver landmark might go.

The emails obtained by 9Wants to Know show communication about recent concerns started two months before Denver announced the closure.

On July 14, Deputy Executive Director of Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) Scott Gilmore wrote to the Denver Police Department (DPD) asking for support. Multiple emails show reasons included DPR employees repeatedly having to administer Naloxone, a medicine that can reverse a drug overdose, and cleaning up needles. Because of safety concerns, DPR even felt a security contractor performing maintenance on the HALO cameras couldn't complete the job without a police escort.

“We are just being overrun by the illegal activity and the generally bad behavior,” Gilmore said, sharing that it had become too much for the parks department staff.

It had also become too much for others working in the park. In an email on Aug. 10, the executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy non-profit informed DPR and a staffer in Mayor Michael Hancock’s office that the group was at their “wit’s end.”

“The mental strain of everyone who works in the park on the ground daily is enormous – I see it not only in our staff, but the DPR crews, as well,” Eric Lazzari said.

He wrote “Civic Center is fixable” in the email that also recounted a story of a crew member being chased by a person with a screwdriver.

Citing that incident, a recent shooting and other violence, Lazzari told the city they would stop Civic Center EATS, an annual food truck event at the park during summer months, early this year.

Denver announced on Sept. 7 that the park would close to make it “stable and safe” following observations of rodents, human waste and drug paraphernalia, as the city said in its press release. It was for those reasons that Denver Dept. of Public Heath and Environment (DDPHE) Director Bob McDonald said in an email on Aug. 25 that “a closure of the park for some length of time for remediation would not be unwarranted.”

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The park formally closed on Sept. 15 with an assist from Colorado State Patrol, which worked with the city to clear the property.

Additionally, Colorado's director of the Division of Capital Assets, Rick Lee, said in an email that the state would not allow charitable food functions at the state-owned Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park across the street from Civic Center.

"In order to assist Denver, we will not be permitting charitable food functions in the park as well. We have not had any requests to date but that may change now that Civic Center will be closed," Richard Lee wrote in an email on Sept. 3.

A spokesman for that agency said on Thursday that only one charitable organization requested a permit to distribute food, but did not move forward because they did not want to pay a permit fee.

At least one local organization expressed worry that people experiencing homelessness might move even further away from the park than simply across the street.

Five days prior to the announcement of the park's closure, the communications director of the Denver Art Museum wrote to the mayor's office about an event next month.

"If this is indeed planned to take place, wanted to see who the correct person would be to get information on what the plans were for how to address the migration that would follow. We'll have media from around the country at the museum on October 13, and wanted to be sure we understood the plans as they are confirmed so we can do whatever we can to prepare,” Kristy Bassuener wrote.

The museum said Thursday that it was concerned for the health and safety of staff and guests.

As the city works to rehabilitate the park, an email from Lee indicates Denver wanted to explore a more permanent measure to guard Civic Center Park, potentially spending $350,000 to explore a wrought iron fence. Gilmore told 9NEWS on Thursday that is not happening but Denver has discussed adding fencing around certain historical parts of the park, like the theater.

The parks department is going to add 11 full time maintenance crews. Eight new park rangers will also be monitoring Civic Center when it eventually reopens.

The closure is expected to last at least 60 days. While another email strongly encouraged the Denver Downtown Partnership to move or relocate the 9NEWS Parade of Lights on Dec. 4, the partnership said Thursday that the event should go on as planned. Sharon Alton, who is responsible for the parade for the Downtown Denver Partnership, said there will be no grandstands for the parade, but that's related to COVID-19.

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