Stoner Hill is dead, and a controversial policy may help keep it that way

A summer crowd gathers on
A summer crowd gathers on "Stoner Hill," also known as Overlook Hill, in Commons Park. (Andrew Kenney / Denverite)
A summer crowd gathers on “Stoner Hill,” also known as Overlook Hill, in Commons Park in 2015. (Andrew Kenney / Denverite)

Property owners and the city of Denver have tried for years to end “Stoner Hill,” a marijuana mecca for young and often homeless people in Commons Park.

Now they’ve succeeded, at least for now. By all accounts, the grassy mound with panoramic views of downtown has been a much quieter place this year.

“The word is just out. It’s just like, ‘Don’t go there,'” as Don Cohen, the president of the Riverfront Park Association, told Denverite.

As one Facebook reviewer said: “Just don’t go, you will be disappointed. No stoners, just junkies.” And the Denver Post today declared that the hill “no longer fit the name.”

But if Stoner Hill does make a comeback, Cohen has an ace up his sleeve: The city is still working to reintroduce controversial rules that let police officers ban suspected drugs users from public parks.

First, let’s go over what didn’t work.

In 2015, the city fenced off the hill for months, citing maintenance needs. But when the fence came down, the place once again became a marijuana mecca, drawing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people on a typical day. The core group was homeless, but they often were joined by high schoolers or the occasional tourist.

Regulars tried to maintain some kind of cohesion, cursing out people who dropped litter and pushing away users of hard drugs — but it didn’t always work. It was easy to find garbage on the hill, and violence wasn’t uncommon. Even the frequent presence of police cruisers didn’t scatter the crowds.

Denver Police ride bikes around Commons Park during the March for Truth, June 3, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) protest; march for truth; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado; denverite; commons park; police; dpd; bike police; bicycle;
Denver Police ride bikes around Commons Park during the March for Truth, June 3, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Recently the city has tried a new approach.

The city has brought tai-chi and line dancing to Commons Park this summer, while Riverfront Park Association has underwritten a series of concerts. Cohen says those events have “activated” the park. The next concert is on July 9.

There’s also been a harder edge. The parks department has installed new security cameras, and the city in 2016 tried a new policy that allows police officers to temporarily ban people from parks if they’re accused of drug use.

That policy has since expired. The American Civil Liberties Union said that it didn’t give people due process, and a judge agreed that it was “unconstitutional.”

But Cohen thinks that the threat of a ban was enough to disrupt Stoner Hill, and he said the city is working on a revised, permanent version of the policy. Parks staff also have confirmed they’re working on a new version.

“I think we can stay on a good path here,” Cohen said. “I’m encouraged that the parks ban is coming back in terms of stronger legislation, stronger due process.”

In the meantime, the Stoner Hill crowd has migrated to Cuernavaca Park, where they gather in front of the Flour Mill Lofts, one of the priciest buildings in the area, according to Devin Hartkopf, a regular on the scene.

“They are there. And the Flour Mill residents are not happy,” Cohen said.

 

Andrew Kenney

Author: Andrew Kenney

Andrew Kenney writes about public spaces, Denver phenomena and whatever else. He previously worked for six years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. His most prized possession is his collection of bizarre voicemail. Leave him one at 303-502-2803, or email akenney@denverite.com.