MODESTO -- The Coffee Plaza Shopping Center once was a bustling place where people bought groceries, got their hair styled and enjoyed a plate of strawberry waffles.
The beauty salons and the Waffle Shop still are in business, but the center at Coffee Road and Floyd Avenue is marred by empty storefronts and struggling enterprises. Property manager Angel Polhemus is asking for help from police to keep it from further decline.
Polhemus vented her concerns in an Oct. 3 letter to the City Council, stating that aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and loitering at the center create an unsafe environment for customers and merchants.
According to the letter, business owners and employees have had their lives threatened when they have asked trouble-makers to leave. Customers are afraid to patronize the businesses and a "couple of these (business owners) lock their doors during regular hours and carry firearms for protection."
Her letter asks that the city redirect police resources to address the problems. The council will consider the complaint Tuesday.
City leaders say they increasingly are hearing crime-related complaints from neighborhood groups. And problems such as those at Coffee Plaza are certain to confront Modesto's new police chief once he or she is hired later this year.
Friday afternoon, two panhandlers who appeared intoxicated worked the parking lot, approaching drivers who parked their cars and customers who walked out of stores.
"Business is way down," said hairstylist Donna Hester, who works at Vivi's Beauty Salon. "It's Friday and we have a couple of employees waiting for people to come in."
She said older customers are unnerved by street people who approach them asking for money. Sometimes, she or another employee will escort seniors to their cars.
As Deborah Braga waited in her car, while her daughter got a facial inside a salon, a mentally disturbed man strode back and forth outside her car, yelling.
Patron feeling uneasy
After the man left, Braga said she wished there were more services for the mentally ill and that the experience made her uneasy about patronizing the center. "I would agree it is a problem," she said.
Michelle Swartzman, a manager at Straw Hat Pizza, said homeless people sit on the sidewalk and eat food, leaving litter. She mentioned the constant panhandling and young people who loiter outside a liquor store in the center.
It has a negative effect on businesses, she said. "I have a lot of customers who say they're nervous coming to this parking lot."
Some said the problems increased after R-N Market closed when its lease expired in 2008 and Model Pharmacy shut its doors in December 2009. A security patrol was discontinued, other stores pulled out and it became more common to see illicit drug sales in the parking lot.
A business called $1&Up Stores was holding a going-out-of-business sale Friday, with items priced at 50 percent off. The frustrated owners declined to comment.
In February, two teenagers Rolando Luna, 15, and Andrew Ensey, 19 were killed in a shooting at Vera Cruz Drive and Floyd, just east of the center. Some believe the confrontation started at the shopping center. Police arrested Nicholas Spangler, 27, of Ceres and Robbie Blackwell, 20, of Modesto. Each man faces two counts of murder.
Polhemus wrote that crime spilling over from the adjacent neighborhood has scared families away from the retail center. "This is like being in Oakland," she said last week. "This is not like living in a suburban town."
Polhemus gave credit to a Modesto police anti-gang officer who worked with the Coffee Plaza businesses several months ago, but communication ended for unknown reasons.
"The authorities have been called upon on countless occasions with either little or no assistance. The criminal activity continues and escalates," the letter said.
Acting Police Chief Gene Balentine went to Coffee Plaza on Friday and was gathering crime statistics for the center and surrounding neighborhood. After the double homicide in February, a gang-prevention unit was ordered to work in the area, he said.
By May, criminal activity stabilized, but authorities noted an uptick in July in calls for disorderly conduct, drunkenness and public nuisances. Patrol officers have cruised the shopping center more often in recent weeks, Balentine said.
The acting chief said he met last week with the Police Department's crime prevention, gang and nuisance-abatement units to plan for stepped-up enforcement. He also wanted to establish communication with the business and property owners.
Balentine said there are laws against aggressive panhandling and asking for handouts in certain locations, such as within 25 feet of a bank or the front doors of a business. Officers often convince violators to leave by giving warnings or issuing citations, but a person is not often booked into jail for panhandling, he said.
Private security suggested
City Council member Stephanie Burnside said Friday that she wasn't aware of problems at Coffee Plaza until the item appeared on Tuesday's council agenda. "I wish business owners would reach out to their council members," said Burnside, whose district includes the shopping center.
She said she was confident the police are forming a plan of attack. The problems described at the center are "definitely something we are plagued with during these times," the councilwoman said. "I don't know if they have explored private security. It's something that is often brought up by neighborhood associations."
Polhemus said police had contacted her Friday and that things could turn around if customers felt more secure. She noted that an anchor tenant has signed papers to move into the boarded-up grocery building at Coffee Plaza.
The City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.