In the late afternoon of a sunny, 90-degree Fourth of July, families enjoyed their day off at Monica Lucero Park near the Genoveva Chavez Community Center.
Groups ate lunch under a permanent shade structure or dragged coolers to worn, somewhat rusted metal tables under tall trees. Kids played on a modern play set, rushing down slides, climbing across monkey bars and racing around a structure that used to hold a swing of some sort, but is now just an empty socket. A little girl turned cartwheels on a balding lawn, green at the edges but mottled with patches of yellow and even gray where the grass had completely worn away.
Empty plastic bottles left on tables and in the grass stood as evidence that parkgoers at Monica Lucero know the drill: Bring your own water.
The park’s one water fountain doesn’t work. And that’s not an isolated problem. Nearly half of the water fountains at city parks checked by The New Mexican had some mechanical issues or wouldn’t turn on.
“We dropped the ball on that one this year,” Parks Director Richard Thompson said. “Nobody’s really sure where it happened, but we didn’t [purchase] parts for repair.”
The city put in that purchase order, Thompson said, after the new fiscal year started July 1.
In a city famously protective of its scarce water supply — discouraging homeowners from growing lawns and charging some of the highest water rates in the country — the quality of shared green spaces is especially important. In the interest of keeping tabs on the well-being of public parks, The New Mexican is launching an ongoing Parks Report Card.
In the first round of the report card series, we evaluated more than two dozen parks across the city on measures including the quality of their playground space, their drinking fountains, the upkeep of courts and fields, how “barefootable” their green spaces are and what park users had to say about the facilities. We narrowed our review to city parks geared toward children and families.
The average score awarded in the first round was a B-minus. None of Santa Fe’s parks scored lower than a C-minus. Detailed reviews of five of those parks can be found below. Look for more reviews in coming weeks. A full scorecard of reviews can be found on santafenewmexican.com.
The most common issues The New Mexican discovered in parks evaluated were faulty drinking fountains, patchy grass and weeds.
The city of Santa Fe Parks and Recreation Department maintains more than 70 parks, ranging from neighborhood spots like Monica Lucero to large sports complexes and open spaces. The maintenance of these parks has been closely scrutinized in recent years, following voters’ approval of $44 million for park and trail improvements in bond measures passed in 2008 and 2012, about half of which was designated for parks.
A state audit of the $30 million 2008 bond found that roughly $2 million had been misused, spent on things like computer equipment and the municipal golf course instead of capital improvement projects.
A 2015 review by The New Mexican found many of the city’s parks in dire need of maintenance. The grass at east-side favorite Monsignor Patrick Smith Park had withered and died, for example, after the city delayed repairs to a broken irrigation system.
Thompson, who has overseen city parks since September 2014, was less charitable than The New Mexican in his assessment of the current state of the parks, but for different reasons. He said he would rank the parks as “fair,” or about a 75 out of 100, which is a C in academic terms.
“I have a little insight on the trees you may not have added,” Thompson said.
Thompson, a certified arborist, said he is concerned about the state of the urban forest in the city, in particular the presence of pests like honey locust borer and European elm scale. He also pointed to some of the aging infrastructure like lights and irrigation systems he knows the city will soon have to replace, and said the turf in many of the parks is “substandard.”
“We’re struggling, struggling to keep it alive right now,” he said.
Torreon Park, District 1
Size: 3.2 acres
The entrance to Torreon Park is deceiving. A sharp turn into the parking lot from West Alameda Street reveals a patch of brown dirt and dying grass, a small fenced-in playground and a tower serving as a monument to the park’s namesake. Bits of trash fleck the scraggly lawn and tufts of tall grass.
But hidden beyond the entryway, a neat and narrow park stretches the length of the neighborhoods to either side, tall trees casting shade around the edges of the rectangular space. Nice shade covers picnic tables and benches near the two play structures and creates cool alcoves down the edges of the green-and-yellow field that expands hundreds of feet beyond. A basketball court in the park has a patched and uneven surface. Tall lights illuminate the field for hours after dark.
“This is a tucked away kind of park,” said Marie Sanchez, a nanny watching her 2-year-old ward play on the well-maintained play structure. “It’s nice with the trees.”
The biggest drawback to the park is a defunct water fountain. On two separate visits, The New Mexican found the spouts didn’t work, and one was covered in pinkish, jelly-like gunk.
Monsignor Patrick Smith Park, District 2
Size: 4.6 acres
Though far from the “brownish yellow husk” The New Mexican reported on in 2015, the grass isn’t up to the city’s standards.
Thompson said the Parks Department’s preferred grass blend ranges in color from dull gray to yellow to an emerald green. His goal is to stay above the threshold of yellow, and to completely avoid barren brown spots in the recreational fields.
Thompson points to the weather as the main culprit for the substandard grass conditions. An unusually dry February and March dried out the grass, then late March storms pushed the city’s typical start date for irrigation back a few weeks to mid-April.
The rest of the park is a bit scraggly, too. The picnic area sits on top of a dirt-and-dead-grass area filled with animal holes. The playground offers climbing walls and is in good repair with the exception of one frayed and broken rope feature. And the basketball courts have seen some wear: Of the eight backboards, one is missing a hoop, another is missing a net, and many of the hoops have been pulled down to an angle, possibly by people attempting slam-dunks.
On a recent weekday, 5-year-old Will Medina ignored the courts and the play equipment, fixated instead on a feature found in playgrounds across the city: weeds.
Will is living in Santa Fe temporarily while his father teaches at St. John’s College. He noticed the weeds the first time he came to the park, Will said. He dug them out with his hands until his father bought him a small shovel for the job. He considers it good practice for his future career as a paleontologist.
“I don’t usually dig weeds at home,” Will said while he knelt in the woodchips and scratched at the roots of the playground plants. “I’m just doing it for fun.”
Thompson said that if the weeds don’t “stick or sting,” they are a secondary priority for the department.
“We concentrate on public safety above appearance,” he said. “If we have alfalfa or clover or native grass growing in a playground, that wouldn’t constitute an emergency to me. We would address it maybe once or twice a year.”
Members of The New Mexican's Digital Enterprise Team took to the city's parks in June and July to evaluate more than two dozen of Santa Fe's parks and compiled the following observations on the state of the city's park system. Hover over the locations on the map to see field notes from the evaluation team and view the report card below the map for details.
Data visualization by Henry M. Lopez/The New Mexican, Data collection by Henry M. Lopez and Sami Edge/The New Mexican, Geographic data source: City of Santa Fe
Southwest Activity Node, District 3
Size: 13 acres
SWAN Park, which opened in 2015, is a gem perched on the southern tip of Jaguar Drive.
The park, which is in the first phase of a three-stage, 90-acre project, has an innovative playground structure complete with a metal labyrinth and planters featuring lavender plants and rose bushes.
Shade is scarce. Tents cover the play equipment, and the small picnic area is shaded by a metal pavilion, but in the hot summer months, baseball players and soccer players taking advantage of the large, grassy fields have little relief from the pounding sun.
When The New Mexican visited SWAN Park, the paint on the basketball court was chipping, and the door on the free library book box was broken off, and all the books were gone. Weeds grew in planters designated for decoration. Large brown spots dotted the lawn in front of the play structure.
Chris Rivera, city councilor for District 3, also said he’s noticed balding spots in the baseball field. He appreciates the addition of the $5 million park to the south side, where a few pocket parks serve the family-dense residential areas, and said it is heavily trafficked.
“Use is a good thing, but maintaining with the amount of usage that we have is important,” Rivera said. “That being the only park [in the area], I think it needs more attention.”
Ragle Park, District 4
Size: 34.8 acres
There are two main draws to Ragle Park: baseball and the slide.
“We’re here entirely because of that slide,” said Jesse Roach, who was keeping an eye on his daughter and her friend as they zoomed down the winding maroon slide that juts from the hilltop play structure and snakes at least 30 feet down.
Near where he sat, golden afternoon light illuminated youth baseball games. Families crowded under the shade of bushy trees and munched nachos from the snack bar. Behind Roach, basketball players shot hoops on a crisply painted court.
The park’s baseball fields, among those prioritized by the city because of their heavy use, shine a deep green in parts but yellow toward the back corners. They are somewhat uneven in the outfield, but animal holes and patches of bare dirt are not so rough to be a real ankle-twisting hazard. Outside of the baseball fields, the grass is in uneven shape. Some areas are lush and “barefootable.” Others are patchy with large spots of bare dirt near the playground.
Heavy use has taken a toll on the playground, too. Though the play equipment is in relatively good shape, a large tear mars the matting next to the slide, like a massive black-and-white stain.
Still, many consider it the best playground structure in town.
Monica Lucero Park, District 4
Size: 10.5 acres
The drawbacks of Monica Lucero Park seem all the more severe given its position in the shadow of one of the city’s most prestigious recreation facilities, the Genoveva Chavez Community Center.
There is one drinking fountain in the park, and it doesn’t work. A swingset structure stands empty, missing whatever tire swing it held in years past. Weeds grow in the dirt-filled steps down to the playground and speckle the hillsides that lead down to the woodchips. The large, grassy field is yellow and gray where the grass has worn through and has some uneven surfaces caused by animal holes that could easily pose hazards for young kids running through the grass.
On a recent afternoon, three women sat around a worn metal picnic table with the paint chipping off, catching up while their children played on the jungle gym. They had decided to meet up at Monica Lucero Park because it was familiar to all of them, and because the play equipment and a boat-like sculpture would entertain the young ones.
“This park is a good park,” said Yolanda Nava. “It’s nice and peaceful here.”
“They have nice access to the trails. I come here a lot and walk my dogs,” said Maria de la Cruz. Kids like the playground, she said, but for all the years she’s lived near the park, it’s been missing whatever piece of equipment used to hang in the empty swingset socket.
The playground weeds did bother the third woman, Kim Washburn, a little bit. But she hadn’t paid much attention to them before The New Mexican started asking questions.
“We didn’t even notice these things,” Washburn said. “As long as it’s safe, we’re like, ‘Yeah!’ ”
The New Mexican’s Henry M. Lopez contributed to this report.
Contact Sami Edge at 505-986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.