Plaza proposal is not “ready”

Most Santa Fe residents who sounded off at a Monday night hearing about Mayor Javier Gonzales’ proposal to close the downtown Plaza to motorized traffic oppose the idea. The city Public Works Committee ultimately made no recommendation on the resolution, which Gonzales amended to say that vehicles should be banned only between Memorial Day weekend in late May and the Monday after the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe in early September, a peak period for tourism and Plaza activities.

The resolution, which had been endorsed by two other city committees, now heads to the city Finance Committee and the Mayor’s Committee on Disability before consideration by the full City Council. “This resolution is not ready,” said City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who chairs the Public Works Committee.

The other four councilors on the panel — Patti Bushee, Bill Dimas, Carmichael Dominguez and Chris Rivera — unanimously agreed, raising questions about who could benefit from the closure without hurting those who use the Plaza the most. Gonzales, who did not attend the committee meeting, issued a statement that said he would continue to strive to work with the community. “I’d like to thank the councilors and the public for sharing their opinions on the Plaza,” he said. “I am committed to working with the Council to find a compromise and consider ways to make the Plaza more safe and inviting for everyone.”

In announcing his proposal earlier this month, Gonzales had couched it as part of a “People to the Plaza” initiative aimed at making the historic square more inviting. But the idea surprised some residents who complained that the newly elected mayor hadn’t publicly discussed the proposal.
Earlier experiments with blocking streets adjoining the Plaza park have ended with all but the Palace Avenue side of the Plaza being reopened to traffic.

The idea of again barricading other streets has drawn mixed responses. Some downtown merchants have expressed fear that business would shrivel. Some local residents have said blocking traffic makes the Plaza seem more tourist-oriented rather than a place also easily accessed and visited by locals. But others have praised the measure as a way to make it safer and easier for pedestrians to walk through the Plaza. Those sentiments were again on display during Monday’s public hearing at City Hall, where seats in the City Council Chamber were mostly filled.

Gloria Mendoza, a self-proclaimed community activist, said she has twice opposed closing the Plaza to motorized traffic and continues to do so. She said bikers and walkers already have plenty of trails to use around town, and that the Plaza should belong to locals. “We don’t have any business closing the Plaza,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with driving. You know I want you to let us feel that we own part of the city here downtown.”

Clarice Coffey, who gives tours in an open-sided vehicle, said closing the Plaza would “cripple the tram tours.” Coffey said older tourists, above 56, are typical of visitors to the city and that they often have mobility issues. “They wouldn’t be able to get the Plaza otherwise,” she said. However, Vince Kadlubek, an artist who is part of local collective Meow Wolf, said he conducted a straw poll via Facebook and found that 56 of his peers, with ages from 18-40, were in favor of closing the Plaza to motorists. Only three, he said, were against closing the Plaza.

“It’s a lopsided issue when you talk to anyone under the age of 40,” he said. “I am a local, too. They’re locals also. Our generation is seeing a pull to non-vehicle usage. It’s a symbolic step for us to take.” Leigh Murphy, co-owner of Kernels’ Kettle Corn stand on the Plaza, said the mayor’s proposal ought to be given a chance to succeed or fail. She said she believes the measure would hurt her business, but there may be a lot to gain on a community level. Murphy also said she sees a lot of animosity between motorists and pedestrians, and that banning vehicles might calm the area.
“We don’t know what it would be like,” Murphy said.She did say she was sympathetic to tour operators and that some aspects of the plan need to be “fleshed out” better.

Others called for a compromise, such as leaving the Plaza open during the day, and closing it to traffic during summer evenings or special events such as the free Santa Fe Bandstand musical performances. City officials do close the Plaza during special events such as the Spanish Market, the Indian Market and the Pancakes on Plaza event on July 4.

The resolution has been scheduled for consideration by the full City Council at its May 14 meeting, which would allow a traffic ban to take effect May 24, the Saturday before Memorial Day. However, Monday’s committee discussion left some doubt about how the debate will play out. City officials in early 1984 did close two streets next to the Plaza, but they were reopened a few months later. In 1990, the city used flower boxes to block streets during the tourist season, but people complained that the boxes weren’t aesthetically pleasing. So the city tried concrete planters to limit traffic. The barriers were later removed.

And in 2002, a couple of accidents involving pedestrians and vehicles on streets near the Plaza eventually led a city committee to recommend the current year-round closing of Palace Avenue in front of the Palace of the Governors while keeping the other streets available to motorized traffic.
Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or cquintana@sfnewmexican.com.