Jardine: Misuse of tiny McClatchy Park stinks

May 9, 2010 

Here's the reality of McClatchy Park:

It smelled better and the ground was more sanitary when it was home to The Modesto Bee's old gas station and fleet service bay than it has as a park, where some of its visitors routinely urinate and defecate in the rose garden.

It traded oil changes for drug deals, anti-freeze for alcohol and engine exhaust for the aroma of freshly toked marijuana.

Clearly, this wasn't what anyone had in mind for the tiny park directly across 15th Street from perhaps the city's greatest treasure, the McHenry Mansion. To the contrary, the park -- the brainchild of attorney and now federal Judge Frank Damrell -- was meant to beautify the downtown.

Donated by The Bee and improved by Julio and Aileen Gallo, it opened in 1995 not only as a city park but also as an extension of the McHenry Mansion. The rose garden makes a gorgeous photographic backdrop for wedding parties at the mansion. And during the week, people or groups visiting the mansion, the McHenry Museum or the Stanislaus County Library could picnic in the shade of the rose arbors. Those working downtown could meet there for brown-bag lunches, enjoying this little oasis amid the buildings and pavement.

For its first decade, the park lived up to expectations. But over the past few years, the clientele changed. Now the park is dominated by the homeless and others, some of whom obey the laws, some of whom don't.

Homelessness has long been a societal problem and has only gotten worse during the recession. Some homeless suffer from mental illness. Some endured financial ruin. Others choose to live that way.

Several arrive each morning at McClatchy Park, spending all day lounging on the lawn or on park benches.

Ultimately, McClatchy Park is a public park and they are the public. Spending the day in the park is their right, except when they're in the wrong -- as when they pee on the bushes and use the rose beds as defecation stations. The park often smells, and city crews needed to replace some of the bedding soil entirely because anti-odor chemicals simply had no effect.

A shot of Febreeze or even the stuff that eliminates cat urine smell? Completely overmatched.

Modesto Parks and Recreation Director Julie Hannon said that when wedding parties come to tour the mansion as a site for their ceremonies, some will reject it because of what they see or hear going on across the street.

Those who work downtown don't use the park for the obvious reason: They don't feel comfortable there among the transient day campers and the sanitation issues.

The Police Department's eight-officer Crime Reduction Team patrols the city's parks, including McClatchy, looking for people who are there after 10 p.m., drinking alcohol without a permit, selling drugs and using the parks for disgusting bodily function stuff. Sgt. Robert Stewart, who heads the unit, said as long as they are behaving, the homeless and others are no different from many other park users.

"You can go to any park and lie on a blanket while kids are playing ball, and it's the same thing," he said.

Tuesday, a story appeared in The Bee detailing the city's plan to clean up the park by fencing it off, keeping it available only for private events.

The city's plan apparently ticked off someone who, late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, vandalized the mansion by spray-painting "The rich can't keep us out" and "We kill yuppies" on the 15th Street fence and threw paint-filled condoms that exploded against windows and the main entrance. They also tore recently installed video surveillance cameras off the mansion.

Such actions only justify the city's desire to clean up McClatchy Park. Officials also are considering turning over the park to the McHenry Mansion Foundation, which would make it private property and give authorities more clout in policing it.

Also, churches and other charitable groups distribute food at the park. Their good intentions make it a daily destination for those in need. If they distribute somewhere else -- preferably somewhere with restrooms -- the group that has taken over McClatchy Park will go there instead.

Here's yet another option: Reclaim the park by using it. Downtown businesses could team up to take morning breaks or meet for brown-bag lunches. Bring plenty of people along because there is power in numbers. Have fun, laugh, sing songs, whatever. Also, the city charges $1 for the park to those who book events at the mansion. It charges $90 for a two-hour minimum and $45 for every additional hour for scheduled events.

Experience suggests that the folks who cherish their public privacy will go elsewhere when it is disturbed.

Regardless, until something changes, it appears cute little McClatchy Park was better for downtown Modesto when it was a gas station. It generated revenue because The Bee paid property taxes on it.

And it had a restroom.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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