MODESTO — A proposal to open Tenth Street Plaza to cars in an effort to jump-start a once-thriving downtown destination received a green light Monday.
The Modesto City Council's Safety and Communities Committee voted 3-0 to forward the plan to the full council for consideration. The matter could come before the council in July or August, Senior Planner Josh Bridegroom said after the meeting.
The proposal drew strong support at Monday's meeting from downtown businesses, property owners, a commercial real estate professional and even the chief executive officer of the Gallo Center for the Arts.
CEO Lynn Dickerson said Modesto does not put itself at an advantage when guests at the DoubleTree Hotel walk through an empty plaza on their way to a show at the Gallo Center.
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. It also is home to Fuzio Universal Bistro, a Jamba Juice store and the Loard's Ice Cream shop.
The plaza, which opened in 1999, once was lined with bustling restaurants and packed with people before the recession hit several years ago. Bridegroom said the vacancy rate in the plaza is 50 percent, compared with a 16 percent vacancy rate for downtown.
With fewer workers downtown because of layoffs and business closures, the plaza has struggled. And Brenden Theatres faces more competition since its debut more than a decade ago, with movie theaters opening in Turlock, north Modesto and Riverbank.
The plaza is considered a graveyard for restaurants, and businesses have told real estate agents not to show them properties in the plaza, said Ryan Swehla, a principal with NAI Benchmark Commercial Real Estate Services.
Proponents say opening the plaza to vehicles for the first time will increase its visibility and the number of people who travel through it. Bridegroom said the proposal has the support of every plaza business, including Brenden Theatres.
Concerns were raised at Monday's meeting regarding pedestrian safety and whether the two-lane brick street running through the center of the plaza could hold up to the wear-and-tear of cars and trucks.
Officials said the plaza can safely accommodate cars and people. They said the plaza was designed for cars, as evidenced by the brick street and the two spaces set aside for motorists to drop off and pick up passengers. There would be no parking in the plaza.
Officials said the plaza quickly can be converted for traffic. They estimate the cost at $14,000 for traffic signal work, signage and pavement striping. The recommendation to allow cars came from the city's Downtown Hospitality Program, which the City Council commissioned in June 2012.
A partner with a commercial real estate firm marketing two empty plaza storefronts said bringing in cars is worth trying. "Opening it up would help lease those spaces," said Tim Bettencourt, who was not at Monday's meeting and is a partner with CoSol Commercial Real Estate. "You are going to get more eyeballs."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.