A surprise proposal from Mayor Javier Gonzales to close all the streets around the Santa Fe Plaza to vehicular traffic is already riling up downtown merchants, some of whom fought off similar traffic-blocking schemes instituted by City Hall in the past.
The proposal, which the administration leaked to an Albuquerque TV station Tuesday, was formally introduced by Gonzales during Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “The intention obviously is to bring more people to the Plaza, creating a safer environment by limiting traffic that is directly around the Plaza so that families hopefully can feel that their children, when they’re in that area, can move around the Plaza safely,” Gonzales said about the proposed resolution, his first since taking office as mayor last month.
Three downtown merchants, including tour operator and former City Councilor Frank Montaño, who endorsed Gonzales when he ran for mayor, showed up at the council chambers Wednesday to express reservations about the idea. “If you’re really trying to make the Plaza for Santa Feans, the last thing you want to do is deny Santa Feans the opportunity to cruise it,” Montaño said in an interview before the meeting. “It’s a time-honored tradition.”
Craig Allen, who is in charge of operations for Ortega Family Enterprises, which owns Ortega’s on the Plaza, said closing off all streets around the Plaza to automobiles would be a “great travesty” to businesses. “With the economic times that we’ve had, we all fight for sales,” he said. “When you cut down our traffic flow exposure, it hurts us all.”
John Dressman, who owns the Plaza shop called Dressman’s Gifts, urged caution. “City Council in the late ’60s decided to take parking off the Plaza,” he said. “Within five years of taking that parking off the Plaza, the two pharmacies were gone. The grocery store was gone. The shoe store and the local clothing stores were gone. Personally, with my family, the flower shop was gone, so you ended up with a tourist shop. It forced downtown into a just-for-tourists.” Gonzales’ proposal, which he calls part of a “People to the Plaza” initiative, calls for closing Lincoln Avenue, San Francisco Street and Old Santa Fe Trail adjoining the Plaza park. The section of Palace Avenue in front of the Palace of the Governors has been closed for several years and would remain closed under the mayor’s proposal.
Gonzales had not publicly discussed the proposal until this week. “It was never discussed during the campaign,” Montaño said Wednesday. “This isn’t a burning issue for Santa Feans. There’s a lot more important issues to deal with.” The idea of prohibiting cars and trucks on the streets surrounding the Plaza isn’t new. Arguments in the past have included how such blockages impact traffic circulation in the downtown historic district when drivers are forced to use other streets to get around in the area.
During past experiments, delivery vehicles have been allowed go around barricades to reach businesses fronting on the historic square.
One longtime city official recalled that in about 1990, the city used portable wooden flower boxes to block streets adjoining the Plaza during the busy season between Memorial Day and Labor Day. After aesthetic complaints, the following summer the city tried using sections of concrete culvert as planters to restrict traffic. However, the traffic experiment was later dropped. Newspaper archives show that in 1984, the City Council had voted to close two streets next to the Plaza, only to reopen them three months later following mixed reviews of the decision. “We urge the Council to reflect that the Plaza is a place for our citizens to stroll, to relax and to shop. It is not a museum,” the Old Santa Fe Association, a historic preservation group, said in a statement at the time.
Montaño recalled that in about 2002, a couple of accidents in which pedestrians were struck by vehicles on streets just off the Plaza led to a discussion of not only safety in the downtown area but once again closing off streets. A committee was formed to study the issue. Montaño and Dressman both served on the committee.
“The decision that ultimately came out of the committee to recommend to the council was that we close off Palace Avenue on a full-time basis,” Montaño said, adding that the consensus on the committee was to keep the other streets open. “Old Santa Fe Trail is a very important historic route of travel and, at one point, it was part of one of the first major highways of the U.S.,” he said.
For Montaño, the issue is personal, but not because he owns a tour van operation. “One of my fondest memories as a youth,” he said, “was cruising the Plaza in my 1971 bumble-bee yellow Dodge Charger with slapstick automatic transmission, 383 engine, big nice chrome wheels and rubber tires and air shocks so that the back end of my car was lifted up a little bit.”
The resolution introduced by the new mayor also calls for “additional parking opportunities” and an increased police presence downtown. The mayor said City Manager Brian Snyder already has a new policing plan in place that will go into effect Saturday. “That’s already happening regardless of what happens through this resolution,” he said. A news release said, “Mayor Gonzales has instructed the Santa Fe Police Department to increase its presence in the downtown area. Beginning April 12, 2014, officers will cover downtown areas including the Paseo de Peralta Loop, Railyard and Plaza from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The goal is to provide a constant presence, ensure continued safety, guide tourists and help address important concerns currently raised by businesses, vendors and the public in these areas as people from all over the world visit our beautiful city.”
The statement said one task for police will be to educate the public on existing laws and enforce an ordinance governing street performers. Gonzales’ resolution, which has yet to be voted on by the City Council, would direct city staff to study the economic impact of the street closures and “modifications to fee structures to make downtown parking more practical for the greatest number of residents and visitors and increase the use of underutilized parking facilities.” The resolution also calls for staff to bring forward additional recommendations to enhance the Plaza experience, increase economic development and “ultimately bring people to the Plaza” within six months of the council adopting the proposed resolution.
“Santa Fe’s historic Plaza has been the commercial, social and political center of Santa Fe since 1610,” Gonzales said in a statement. He called his initiative “an approach for residents and visitors to discover new means to use and enjoy downtown Santa Fe. Many cities have found that reducing vehicle traffic and creating pedestrian-friendly city centers benefits economies by improving the experience for shopping, dining, sightseeing and other activities.”