Jones: Instead of opening Modesto's Tenth Street Plaza to cars, develop a real plan

August 22, 2013 

EC Plaza03

ED CRISOSTOMO/ecrisostomo@modbee.com People walk along on Tenth Street Plaza on Thursday evening (05-30-13) in Modesto, CA.

ED CRISOSTOMO — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— On Aug. 13, the Modesto City Council voted 4-2 to open Tenth Street Plaza to car traffic for a one-year test. Public response has been almost unanimously opposed, but plaza merchants, especially the biggest ones, argued that cars will increase business.

Apparently driving past a store, even without stopping, will lead to higher sales. It's done so much for the rest of downtown.

Many think the plaza space is too tight to effectively channel movie-related traffic. Dropping off kids might not be as much a problem as post-film pickups when parents could be stuck in a traffic jam, backed up into K and J Streets.

The plaza situation has generated conflicting concerns that vary between the potential of too many people in the plaza and too few.

Some have complained that the plaza is often empty (other than panhandlers) and forbidding to tourists who might otherwise walk from the DoubleTree Hotel to the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Why is the plaza so underused? There is no place in Modesto that offers more potential for events and ongoing uses than the plaza and the outstanding water-feature space across K Street at the convention center. The answer is better management and more creative thinking. This zone, which could hold a daily European-style farmers market and open-air cafe, is the starting place and anchor for advancing 10th Street into an important urban asset — the "lineal heart" of Modesto, as described by a citizens' plan published in 2004.

By the way, that document, the Downtown Renaissance Plan, produced in three months almost a decade ago by a dozen citizens, also recognized that showgoers heading for the Gallo Center or any downtown restaurant might pay a few bucks for rides in pedicabs. Back then a Bee reporter found the idea of bicycle-powered vehicles in Modesto amusing, but, surprise, they showed up at the Gallo curb in following months. We later lost that opportunity, one which has been embraced by San Jose, Stockton, Santa Barbara and other western cities, as well as the world.

If the Gallo Center, the DoubleTree and key restaurants would jointly pay a modest base wage to a reliable service, these fun rides — tips accepted — would resolve visitors' reported fear or discomfort of walking downtown, especially when dark.

While we're at it, there aren't enough trees downtown — many more are needed! — for rope lights that can brighten the plaza and the presently bland block of 10th Street between J and I streets to the Gallo Center.

Other short-term improvements are possible. For example, near the Gallo, the city could build a kiosk with all the Graffiti panels duplicated in one place so visitors don't have to hunt for them. And they could rent pedicabs for a tour around the Graffiti cruising loop, especially when and if the city finally upgrades that corridor.

These piecemeal actions might or might not fit into our long-range aspirations. We need more public input that leads quickly to an action plan. The need for a serious educational effort was revealed in a Bee editorial in recent weeks that opposed the plaza changes, but surprisingly declared, "Modesto has something that many cities don't: a viable, walkable and welcoming downtown."

It appears The Bee's editorial board and perhaps the city planning department need to take a day trip to Turlock, Riverbank, Ripon and even to tiny Waterford. They all have superior downtown designs, and it is not clear how Modesto can catch up.

Reducing the integrity of the plaza was an unfortunate decision, but one that might lead to a fuller public discussion and planning process.

Jones, a Modesto resident, often writes about and participates in planning issues regarding downtown. Send questions or comments to columns@modbee.com.

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