Would reopening Tenth Street Plaza to vehicular traffic reinvigorate the retail businesses there? Would it encourage more businesses to lease space? Would it bring more people downtown? In all likelihood, the answer to each of these questions is "no," and the City Council should vote against this proposal.
Last week, members of the council's Safety and Communities Committee comprised of Councilmen Dave Lopez, Dave Geer and John Gunderson voted unanimously to send the issue to the full council for consideration after hearing testimony from business owners and real estate professionals.
Proponents of the plan cited the plaza as a "graveyard for business," and a disadvantage for development when visitors who might be staying at the nearby DoubleTree Hotel walk through an empty plaza.
Modesto has something that many cities don't: a viable, walkable and welcoming downtown. Along with recent efforts by the Modesto Police Department to make it a safer place, the DoubleTree Hotel, Modesto Centre Plaza, the Gallo Center for the Arts and all of the downtown stores and restaurants give it a unique personality all in a region whose residents will line up for dinner at a new franchise restaurant or wait overnight for the opening of a new chain retailer at the mall, but have never dined or shopped downtown.
The central theme of those wishing for the street to be reopened seems to be the hope for an economic silver bullet: Open the street and drivers passing by, at least those not distracted by their mobile phones, passengers, pedestrians or the like, will immediately notice and frequent the shops. We think that logic is flawed.
Vacancy rates in the plaza are 50 percent, compared with a downtown average of 16 percent. Businesses have left the plaza some moving just a few blocks away to escape the higher rent. When it opened, the main draw for the plaza was Brenden Theater, an anchor to which many other establishments tied. With heavy investment by competitors in recent years, however, theaters along north McHenry and in Riverbank are peeling off moviegoers.
The plaza should serve as a jumping-off point for the entire downtown area, and proponents for downtown should work toward that goal. With plenty of garage parking on site, and additional parking garages on 11th and 12th streets, it's easy to walk to dinner, walk to a show and walk back to your car. The gravitational pull of the mall hasn't drawn all of the downtown businesses and restaurants into its orbit, nor has residential development gone so far as to make downtown more than a 15-minute drive from most parts of the city.
It is unfortunate to walk through Tenth Street Plaza and see the vacancies. It will be just as troublesome to drive through and see the same thing, just as it is to see the empty buildings while driving along McHenry Avenue or past Century Center. Allowing traffic back onto one block of 10th Street isn't likely to create what proponents hope for, and in fact will eliminate another of downtown's few charms.