MODESTO — In an attempt to jump-start a once-thriving destination, Modesto will consider opening Tenth Street Plaza to cars this summer.
The 13-year-old downtown plaza once was lined with bustling restaurants and packed with people before the recession hit several years ago. Now, about half of the storefronts lining the plaza are empty, with for lease signs in their windows, and far fewer people visit the site.
The proposal has the support of a city councilman and nearby businesses, but has generated concern about the intersection of pedestrians and cars or whether it's the appropriate solution.
The plaza takes up one city block between J and K streets and is flanked by Tenth Street Place the city-county administration building and the 18-screen Brenden Theatres. Besides Fuzio Universal Bistro, the plaza has a Jamba Juice store and a Loard's Ice Cream shop.
Fuzio has been in the plaza since the beginning. Fuzio general manager Thomas Lopes said the plaza once drew as many as 150 people on a busy night. Now, about half as many turn out Friday evenings for the Music in the Plaza concert series, which is May through August this year. Lopes said about a dozen people can be found in the plaza when there is not a concert.
He supports opening the area to cars, as does Councilman Dave Geer, whose district includes downtown.
"We need to generate more visibility for businesses," Geer said. "Those businesses need help."
Geer added that the increased traffic and visibility may result in the empty storefronts filling up with restaurants and shops and more jobs as those businesses hire workers.
City officials said if the plaza is opened to traffic for the first time in its history, it would be for a trial run.
But a consultant and property manager for one of the plaza's landlords said the proposal does not address the primary cause of the plaza's decline: There are far fewer people downtown.
Michael Herrero with Civic Partners, which owns the retail space on the ground floor of Tenth Street Place, said the number of workers downtown has dropped because of layoffs and business closures.
Herrero also said Brenden Theatres faces more competition since its debut more than a decade ago, with movie theaters opening in Turlock, north Modesto and Riverbank.
The proposal drew thumbs down from several people in the plaza Thursday. They said letting in cars would take away from what makes the plaza unique as a public space, where people can walk and wander freely. They worry that children going to and from movies and cars are not a safe combination.
They also questioned whether letting cars drive through the plaza will help the businesses. Cars won't be able to park, though the plaza has two spaces where drivers could drop off or pick up people. There also is a nearby public parking garage. Herrero also wondered whether the plan would work without curbside parking.
"It would be too dangerous," said Modesto resident Jennifer Brown, who was waiting to pick up her two sons from a showing of "Fast & Furious 6" at Brenden Theatres. "There are lots of families with kids in the plaza. We have enough areas for cars."
Geer and Lopes said they understand the concerns. They said the plaza can keep its charm and concerts and other events and remain safe even with cars.
"It's a case of change is tough," Geer said. "Frankly, I like being able to wander around there and not worry about traffic. But all things considered, I think it's worth a try."
Lopes said a bustling plaza would give guests at the nearby DoubleTree Hotel the right image of Modesto. He also believes a busier plaza will result in the homeless who now hang out there finding another spot.
Geer acknowledged the proposal is at odds with the city's efforts to make downtown more friendly for walkers. But he said the city needs to do something to help the plaza.
Geer and Lopes were among the business and city officials and others who walked through the downtown at night several times last spring and summer to get a look at what is working and not working downtown.
Opening the plaza to traffic was one of the group's recommendations. Herrero said Civic Partners was not notified about the recommendation, even though it's one of the plaza's landlords and sits on the committee that manages the plaza.
Community & Economic Development Director Brent Sinclair said the proposal should come before the City Council's Economic Development Committee soon and then go to the City Council in summer. The plaza could open to traffic quickly if the council gives its approval.
Sinclair said city officials are gathering estimates on how much it would cost to change the traffic lights at Tenth Street at J and K streets and the other work associated with the project.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.