MODESTO — The training wheels stayed on as brick-paved Tenth Street Plaza was opened to vehicle traffic Thursday morning for the first time in its 13-year history.
During the noon hour, perhaps a couple dozen vehicles made their way down the block between J and K streets. Without exception, drivers proceeded slowly, perhaps not trusting that all pedestrians would be mindful of the cars, trucks and motorcycles that now share the street.
For their part, most pedestrians were taking baby steps. Some used the newly painted crosswalk in front of Brenden Theatres. Many others crossed at various spots along the block, but most looked both ways, and no one crossed as a vehicle approached.
The City Council voted 4-2 on Aug. 13 to open the downtown destination to cars, at an estimated cost of $14,000, which includes changing the traffic signals at J and K streets at 10th Street.
From all accounts, it was a smooth start to the one-year trial during which the city hopes the through traffic will jump-start business activity by increasing the plaza's visibility.
Modesto police Sgt. Steve Stanfield drove his patrol car through the plaza, saying he had to see for himself how things were going. He'd been on duty since 5 a.m. and said, "Everything seems to be going quietly and smoothly."
Asked if there will be any extra police presence on the first Friday and Saturday nights prime moviegoing time at Brenden, which sits midblock he noted that there always are extra patrols downtown Thursday through Saturday nights. He said patrol officers will be briefed on paying extra attention to the plaza.
As Stanfield stood next to his patrol car after pulling over, a couple of Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies came out of Fuzio Universal Bistro after having lunch. Seeing him, one of the deputies, Tom Letras, couldn't resist ribbing Stanfield. Gesturing toward the crosswalk, Letras said, "Sergeant, is it all right if we cross here?"
"Deputy, you may cross anywhere you like," Stanfield joked back.
Others who were on the plaza for much of Thursday agreed there were no apparent problems between those on foot and those behind the wheel. Emmily Mello, a 14-year-old Downey High student, had been camped with a friend in Brenden's covered outdoor entryway since 3:30 a.m. Why? For the 7 p.m. première of the concert film "One Direction: This Is Us in 3D."
She said traffic was light and she neither saw nor heard any close calls. As for the plaza being opened to traffic, Emmily said she's a frequent patron of the theater and neighboring Jamba Juice, and "I liked not having to look both ways when I cross, but otherwise it's OK. Unless it starts getting really busy (with vehicle traffic), I don't think it will affect" how often she visits the plaza.
Over at Jamba Juice, manager Crystal Hernandez had been on since early morning. Looking out the front window, she said, "It's just going to take some getting used to having vehicles going down the street, but eventually it will seem natural."
Drivers were going slowly, she said a good thing, because "I still see people wandering in the middle of the street." She said she was glad there are a number of yellow signs up, reading, "CAUTION, Watch for TRAFFIC, 10th Street now Open."
Business was brisk at the juice shop during the lunch hour but it usually is. It's too early to tell how the opening of 10th Street may affect business, but "I've noticed some unfamiliar faces today," Hernandez said.
Though vehicles never have driven through it until now, the plaza was designed for cars, with a two-lane street running through it. The plaza does not have parking, but does have two spots for drivers to drop off and pick up passengers.
Opponents fear that people and cars are not a good mix and believe what ails the plaza won't be fixed by letting in cars.
"I cringe when I think about the first little girl or boy who dashes across the street as they have become accustomed to no traffic," Modesto resident Dorothy Elder wrote in a recent letter to the editor. "Having car traffic has not improved business to the rest of 10th, as well as 11th, I and J streets."