The Saturday of Labor Day weekend was sublime. Clear blue skies, a gentle breeze and songbirds’ lazy trills provided an exuberant farewell to summer. It was the kind of day that begged for picnics, walks by the river, Frisbee, freeze tag, naps in the grass—the kind of day that should have filled every last park with shrieking kids competing desperately for a turn on the slide.

But Santa Fe’s playgrounds were empty.

Empty, save for a handful of tweens in skater garb at the Railyard Park, a couple making out behind the jungle gym at Villa Linda Park, and the gray-haired man who felt free to use the swings at Larragoite because no child had come within a half-mile of its brand-new playground all day.

Maybe it was too hot. Eighty degrees could hardly be called searing, but shade trees are notably lacking from many Santa Fe jungle gyms and swing sets.

Maybe they were gone for the weekend—the kids, along with the parents who might encourage them to play outside. Maybe everyone was just plain tired from beginning a new school year.

But it’s a recession, and sunshine and public parks are two of a very limited number of things that are free.

So why aren’t Santa Feans taking advantage?

Among the playground-going and playground-analyzing crowds, theories abound.

Corinne Lebrun, the mother of an energetic 5-year-old, Mathias, says not all playgrounds are as welcoming as the one at Alto Park. It’s officially the last weekend of summer, and the joyous shrieks of kids at the outdoor pool fill the air. But the playground isn’t deserted, either; Mathias and his friend Rowan are tearing around the plastic play structure, engrossed in a game of their own creation.

“This is our favorite,” Lebrun says of the Alto Park playground. It’s surrounded by shade trees, has sections of rubbery, soft flooring, and offers plenty of benches for adults to hang out and watch.

Mathias usually chooses this one or Torreon, the small, deeply shaded park just blocks away off of W. Alameda, Lebrun says.

At Torreon, she explains, “there are two playgrounds, and you can ride your bike around them.”

The John F Griego Vietnam Veterans Park, a few blocks away on Paseo de la Conquistadora, is another favorite. It’s less shady, but it does have “a huge metal slide that’s really fast,” plenty of lush grass and a weeping willow that evokes someplace that isn’t a desert.

And the best part?

“There’s hardly ever anybody there,” Lebrun says.

Other playgrounds, such as the one at the entrance to the Frank S Ortiz Dog Park, where the midday sun bakes the play equipment into a searing version of a black leather car seat in summer, are empty for more obvious reasons.

As deserted as the dog park playground may be, it’s clean and well-kept—evidence of a massive bond project begun back when times weren’t so lean.

In 2008, the City of Santa Fe passed a $30 million bond initiative to fund improvements in parks across the city.

Each of Santa Fe’s four council districts received roughly the same amount of money for park improvement—between $2 and $2.6 million. (The rest of the bond money went to regional parks, the Northwest Quadrant Master Plan and capital infrastructure projects such as trails.)

Next week, the city’s Parks and Open Space Advisory Commission will tour several parks to assess bond spending to date. Bette Booth, who chairs the commission, tells SFR she “went to every single park” before the bond money was allocated, taking pictures of each.

It’s been more than two years since the parks bond passed, and many of Santa Fe’s playgrounds—Larragoite, for instance, and Frank Ortiz—look positively spruced-up. A few others sit rusting in the weeds. Some, such as the playground planned for Ashbaugh Park, remain purely theoretical.

That’s because not all of the bond money allotted to city park improvements has been spent. According to numbers furnished by the Parks Division in response to SFR’s public records request, more than half of the money spent on city parks went to Districts 1 and 2. (Public Works Department Director Isaac “Ike” Pino tells SFR an internal audit with updated spending figures will be ready this week.)

According to Fabian Chavez, the city’s Parks Division director, in planning where to spend bond money first, “The consensus seemed to be the parks that had the most use.”

A large portion of the bond money allotted to each park, he says, has gone toward Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and irrigation systems. Starting with parks that already got a lot of traffic, Chavez says, provided “the biggest bang for the buck.”

District 1 City Councilor Patti Bushee says her district also contains some of the older parks.

“I think [the Parks Division was] very aware from the beginning that the bond funds were to be equitably distributed throughout the city,” Bushee says. “It’s just a matter of timing, and they may have already had a handle on the older parks and what was needed right away.”

But Chavez’ operating budget ($106,000 for the last fiscal year) shows a similar tendency to spend in the city’s northeastern areas.

“District 1 has the Plaza, the cathedral and all the events: the turf, the cleaning, the trees, event staffing,” Chavez says. It’s the same pattern: Where the people go, so too will the money.

But if spending were based on demographics, those trends would likely be reversed.

According to 2000 census data, the median age in Bushee’s district ranges from 42 to 56 years old. (District 2, on Santa Fe’s east side, is even older, with median ages of up to 74 years old.) By those standards, Santa Fe’s youngest population lives in District 3, the city’s southwest sector.

Demographics, District 3 City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez says, could be precisely the reason parks like Larragoite stay deserted even on sunny Saturdays.

“You don’t have as young a demographic in that part of the community as you do, say, where Las Acequias [Park] is,” Dominguez says. Though he says he’s happy with the work the city has done under the bond initiative, he still sees a need for more parks in his district.

“It’s a demographic that is the youngest and newest part of our [city], so we’re having to play some catch-up,” Dominguez says. “People are concerned about having recreational space.”

But District 4 Councilor Ron Trujillo says the 2008 bond money has worked wonders in his district—especially at Franklin E Miles (which is classified as a “regional park” because its ball fields, like Fort Marcy’s or Ragle Park’s, attract people from around the city).

“It’s money that’s been well spent,” Trujillo says. “These are suggestions we made, and the Parks [and Open Space Advisory Commission] heard, and you can see: In Franklin Miles we have all these nice walking trails; Ragle’s going to be the same thing.”

Booth tells SFR the bond implementation has been “amazing.”

“Parks [is] managing 20-plus projects each summer, which is more than most construction companies,” she says. “We’re on time in spite of a long, public process.”

Booth says the advisory commission made spending recommendations—which the Parks Division adopted almost uniformly—based on various parks’ level of need.

The biggest transformations, she says, have been at Franklin E Miles, Fort Marcy and new parks such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Las Estancias. Her biggest concern, she says, is maintaining more and better parks around the city.

“Our major concern is maintenance,” Booth tells SFR. “We [got] the bond when the economy was strong, and we proposed that Parks add one or two people every year.”

That, needless to say, hasn’t happened. While Chavez did get additional maintenance staff for the Railyard in 2008, he says he hasn’t added a single permanent employee since then. In fact, the 2008 bond could be the only reason Santa Fe’s parks aren’t literally disintegrating.

“You take the cost of doing one playground feature for one age group—that can range from $20,000 to $70,000,” Chavez says. “That’s a third of my operating budget! There’s no way I could do these upgrades without [bond money].”

What We Found

In order to get a sense of the civic emphasis on parks playgrounds, SFR visited 17 playgrounds during the first week of September—and between 2 pm and 6 pm on Wednesday, Sept. 1 and all day on Saturday, Sept. 4. SFR also collected police reports and city spending records for the past year (current through February), including all purchase orders by the city Parks Division, in order to create a comprehensive view of the state of Santa Fe’s parks and playgrounds. Below is a sampling of our findings.

District 1

Fort Marcy Complex/Mager’s Field

490 Washington St.

Time of visit: 3:50 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 25 (5-10 kids on playground)

Facilities: playground equipment, soccer fields, restrooms, water fountains, exercise stations, shaded areas

Police reports: auto burglary (3), unknown (4)

2008 bond allocation: $582,625

Status: complete

Improvement spending: approximately $582,625

Improvements: plaza, perimeter pathway, play structure, shade structures, putting green, park furniture, exercise stations

Operational spending: $2,282.79 for security lights, bridge repair and ballpark repairs at Fort Marcy Complex/Mager’s Field

Planned improvements: none pending

Frank S Ortiz Park

160 Camino de las Crucitas

Time of visit: 3:35 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 3 at dog park, 0 at playground

Facilities: jungle gym, swings

Lacking: shade, water fountains

Police reports: 0

2008 bond allocation: $78,608

Status: complete as of June 2010

Improvement spending: approximately $67,978

Improvements: install/upgrade playground structure, install water fountains, picnic table huts, doggie dispensers, plant trees

Operational spending: $774 spent on Frank S Ortiz and Cathedral parks for security lights

Planned improvements: none pending

Railyard Park

Corner of Cerrillos Road and Guadalupe Street

Time of visit: 4:30 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 14 (3 teenage boys, 3 young children, 8 parents/family members)

Facilities: rope web, spinning tops, climbing rocks, different play areas

Lacking: water in water features

Police reports: 0

2008 bond allocation: NA, the Railyard Park was privately funded by the Trust for Public Lands ($13 million for the park as a whole)

Status: complete

Operational spending: $128.31 for bolts and other maintenance supplies

Planned improvements: none pending with Parks Division

Torreon Park

1515 W. Alameda St.

Time of visit: 3:19 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 10 for a birthday party

Facilities: two playgrounds, bike path

Police reports: auto burglary (2), other (3)

2008 bond allocation: $92,125

Status: on schedule to begin this month

Improvement spending: approximately $92,125 encumbered

Improvements: NA

Operational spending: NA

Planned improvements: signs, water fountains, repaint basketball court

Alto/Bicentennial Park and Outdoor Pool

1043 Alto St.

Time of visit: 4:30 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 10

Facilities: playground area, shade trees, benches

Police reports: aggravated assault/battery (1), “minor sex offenses” (1)

2008 bond allocation: $15,875 for pool, 0 for park

Status: pending

Improvement spending: approximately $15,875 for pool, park was completed with Capital Infrastructure Projects funding

Improvements: trees, signs, pool upgrades

Operational spending: $31.96 for maintenance supplies

Planned improvements: none pending

District 2

Calle Alvarado Park

2234 Calle Alvarado

Time of visit: 5:40 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1

Number of people present: 0

Facilities: jungle gym, swings

Police reports: 0

2008 bond allocation: 0

Status: NA

Improvement spending: NA

Improvements: none

Operational spending: NA

Planned improvements: none pending

Calle Lorca Park

2075 Calle Lorca

Time of visit: 6:10 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1

Number of people present: 4 teenagers playing basketball, 0 on the playground

Facilities: playground, basketball court

Lacking: grass

Police reports: unattended death (1)

2008 bond allocation: $187,500

Status: will be completed October 2010

Improvement spending: approximately $187,500 encumbered

Operational spending: $36.98 for maintenance supplies

Planned improvements: 2001 Master Plan calls for installing signs, acquiring the right-of-way to build trails to Old Pecos Trail and Sun and Moon Mountains.

District 3

Ashbaugh Park

1703 Cerrillos Road

Time of visit: 1:24 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 15 teenagers playing soccer

Facilities: soccer fields, decrepit basketball court

Lacking: playground, defined parking areas, trails, picnic tables

Police reports: criminal damage/vandalism/injury (1), unknown (1)

2008 bond allocation: $452,000

Status: under construction (Parks Division is relocating prairie dogs)

Improvement spending: $423,399

Improvements: demolition but no construction yet

Operational spending: $156.06 for bolts and other maintenance equipment

Planned improvements: playground (in design phase), parking improvements

Larragoite Park

Corner of Agua Fria Street and Avenida Cristobal Colón

Time of visit: 1:35 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 0

Facilities: new playground, trails, tennis courts, picnic tables, water fountains

Police reports: motor vehicle accident (2)

2008 bond allocation: $250,000

Status: complete

Improvement spending: approximately $250,000

Improvements: renovated playground structure, walking path, shaded areas, drinking fountains and irrigation systems

Operational spending: NA

Planned improvements: none pending

Las Acequias Park

1100 Calle Atajo

Time of visit: 4:05 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1

Number of people present: 2 dog walkers, 4 people sitting in the shade, 3 city workers

Facilities: playground and walking path (both under construction)

Lacking: open playground

Police reports: assault/battery (1), warrant service (2), vehicle impoundment (1), concealing identity (1), unknown (2)

2008 bond allocation: $150,000

Status: on schedule

Improvement spending: $150,000 encumbered

Improvements: irrigation, paved walking path, playground upgrade

Operational spending: $35.82 for maintenance supplies

Planned improvements: transit stop, security cameras, install irrigation and turf

Gregory Lopez Park

1230 San Felipe Road

Time of visit: 1 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 0

Facilities: playground area, grass, picnic tables

Police reports: 0

2008 bond allocation: $97,750

Status: complete

Improvement spending: $82,477

Improvements: irrigation system, picnic tables, park benches, grills

Operational spending: NA

Planned improvements: none pending

District 4

Monica Lucero

2356 Avenida de las Campanas

Time of visit: 4:25 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1

Number of people present: 10 over the course of an hour

Facilities: playground area, swings, soccer/football field

Police reports: 0

2008 bond allocation: $76,800

Status: on schedule, beginning solar light installation

Improvement spending: approximately $76,800

Improvements: irrigation, resodding, planting trees

Operational spending: NA

Planned improvements: none pending

Ragle Park

Corner of Zia Road and Yucca Street

Time of visit: 5:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1

Number of people present: 0 (park closed)

Facilities: ball fields, restrooms, picnic tables

Lacking: public access

Police reports: auto burglary (4), violation order of protection (1), unknown (1)

2008 bond allocation: $2,305,762.50

Status: under construction

Improvement spending: approximately $2.3 million encumbered

Improvements: demolition only, no construction yet

Operational spending: $84.59 for a lock and vandalism repairs

Planned improvements: ball field lighting, picnic area and playground upgrades, repaving, shade structures, “recreational water feature”

Villa Linda Park

4250 Cerrillos Road (behind Santa Fe Place mall)

Time of visit: 6:15 pm Saturday, Sept. 4

Number of people present: 2 teenagers making out

Facilities: playground area, open field

Lacking: shade, restrooms

Police reports: 488 for Santa Fe Place, but according to Crime Analyst Miquela Gonzales, Santa Fe Police received only one call for Villa Linda Park: a fireworks violation for which no police report was ever completed

2008 bond allocation: $107,490

Status: on schedule, slated to begin this fall

Improvement spending: approximately $98,799 encumbered

Improvements: trees, park benches, playground upgrade, erosion control

Operational spending: NA

Planned improvements: trees, tables, benches, playground upgrade

What’s in a playground?

As SFR spent the past few weeks combing through records related to spending and crime at Santa Fe’s parks, we also got to do the fun stuff: Go to the park.

In our conversations with park-goers around the city, we found some outspoken opinions on what makes a park—and especially a playground—work.

Take the Fort Marcy Complex/Mager’s Field playground, which is expansive (and expensive), with plenty of play space for kids of all ages. And though it can be hard to find shade, Karen Borovina says the wide-open layout makes it easy to watch her two young boys.

At parks where there’s more terrain, such as the Railyard Park play area at the corner of Cerrillos and Guadalupe streets, “You’re constantly chasing the kids,” Borovina says. “It has little pockets, which make it harder to watch them.”

The Railyard play area is, it turns out, a point of contention among parents. Corinne Lebrun, who has a 5-year-old son named Mathias, calls it “the most kid-unfriendly playground ever,” citing things such as cliff-like climbing areas.

“They have all these water features that are never working,” Steve Dulfer, who also has a 5-year-old, chimes in.

“And these spinning things! They call it the throw-up playground,” Lebrun says. “There are these steep drop-offs. I see so many kids get hurt there.”

Dulfer says fixing those water features—and adding fountains and shade trees at other parks—could bring more people to Santa Fe’s playgrounds.

But he also says he doesn’t visit playgrounds too frequently “because it’s boring for big people.”

The Railyard, as it turns out, could be the only place where that isn’t true.

“It’s multi-generational!” Kelly Loyd exclaims, keeping one eye on her 6-year-old daughter Breanna, who’s spinning another child around on the spherical metal pods that seem to attract equal fervor from kids a decade older. (Those, one instantly realizes, are how the park got its “throw-up playground” reputation.)

In all, three generations of Loyds are here—ostensibly so Breanna can play, but Kevin remarks that he’s “seen a number of adults” playing in the heavy rope netting in the center of the Railyard Park.

“Her favorite place to play is here,” Kelly says, gesturing toward a steep concrete drop-off. “It freaks me out, but she has fun.”

Her husband, Kevin, laughs.

“You can’t have everything two inches tall and made of Nerf,” he says. “This is as safe as it gets.”

Jana, his mother, says the point of a playground with hard edges is to encourage real learning.

“We want our kids to be building the play skills they need to ski, to climb, to live,” Jana says. “You’ve got to learn to be safe because you’re smart,” she says—not because it won’t hurt when you fall.

According to Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and author of the nonfiction book American Playgrounds:

Revitalizing Community Space, a little danger is just what today’s playgrounds need to compete with the thrall of Halo and the Wii.

“Play equipment, although it’s bright and shiny, is pretty boring,” Solomon says. “Standard-issue stuff [is] great for exercise, but it doesn’t allow kids to work together or fantasize.”

That, Solomon says, makes “the stuff at home more seductive.”

Solomon, who provides consulting services for cities interested in creative playground design and construction, is in favor of edgier, Railyard-style playgrounds. And despite the obvious lawsuit issue, Solomon says many play equipment manufacturers are moving in that direction, too.

There is, of course, a fine line between learning one’s limits and actually being unsafe.

Pay to Play

SFR also requested figures for the actual cost of purchasing and installing a new playground, as is planned for several parks around the city. The city’s Parks Division director, Fabian Chavez, says he can only provide real costs for completed playgrounds, but here’s a sampling:

Frank S Ortiz playground (District 1): $37,921

Larragoite Park playground (District 2): $29,695

Maclovia Park playground (District 3): $44,000

Mager’s Field playground (District 1): $189,898

Safety First

In order to gauge the safety of Santa Fe’s playgrounds, SFR studied a year’s worth of police records for 27 parks across the city.

Both city and county police department heads view Santa Fe’s parks as relatively safe. Several parks had no incidents in the past year. Of those that did, SFR’s review found that the bulk of incidents were nonviolent. West DeVargas Park, for instance, had two liquor law violations, one report of marijuana possession and one for urinating in public. Burglaries, car accidents and vandalism were common; less frequent were reports of violent crimes.

“Ninety percent of our parks, 90 percent of the time, are safe places for people to take their families,” Santa Fe Chief of Police Aric Wheeler tells SFR. “I’m a father of four, and I go to the parks on a regular basis. I take my 3-year-old all the way up to my 11-year-old, and I don’t see any major [violent crime] concerns.”

Wheeler says most of the calls he gets for city parks involve people playing loud music or transients hunkering down for the night.

“It’s dependent on each park and on the time of year,” Wheeler explains. “We probably dedicate more resources to Franklin Miles [Park] during the summer because we see an increased number of complaints concerning boom boxes.”

Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano offers a similar viewpoint.

“We don’t have a lot of crime in the parks,” Solano says. “It’s usually nuisance calls—people out late in the parks.”

But the relative infrequency of violent crime doesn’t make it any less disturbing. Police records chronicle an “unattended death” at Calle Lorca Park last December, for instance, and a report of aggravated assault and battery around noon in Patrick Smith Park at the end of this July.

Wheeler says the Santa Fe Police keep track of the parks as part of their regular patrols, and that he’ll only allocate extra resources if there’s a problem.

“It’s all dependent on what the officer sees each day,” Wheeler says. “Usually after we dedicate an officer or two to [a problem area], after a couple weeks, we start to see a decline in that type of activity.”