Former Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside has proposed using the block currently occupied by the Stanislaus County courthouse and jail as a park in downtown Modesto. The block is bounded by “I” Street on the north, 12th Street on the east, “H” Street on the south and 11th Street on the west. The park would be modeled on San Francisco’s Union Square.
At first blush, the idea sounds great. More green open space downtown is appealing. The park would provide an excellent visual companion to the Gallo Performing Arts Center.
As with all great ideas, big obstacles exist to a successful execution of such a proposal. The land upon which the park would sit would be, like San Francisco’s Union Square, about the most valuable in the community. Selling the land to a private developer for housing and/or business construction would bring in millions of dollars. Developing a park would result in a loss of that money. Also lost would be revenue generated by putting the land back into the tax base.
The cost to remove the buildings and tear up the concrete will be substantial.
In the last couple of decades, public resistance to the expenditure of local tax money for major capital programs has grown. People want less government with less expenditure. As the City of Modesto and Stanislaus County encounter ever tighter budgets and are forced to reduce services, a major capital program of this magnitude would be difficult to pull off without finding a source to fund it.
Downtown Modesto does not have the shopping and other nearby attractions that Union Square in San Francisco offers. The dynamic here is totally different. The square would be mostly empty except when special events are scheduled, such as Gallo performances and parades.
Some of the events presently held in Graceada Park could be moved to a new downtown park. This would relieve some of the noise and parking burden experienced by residents in the Graceada area. If a new downtown park would result in new community celebrations and events, perhaps the park could be justified.
In the present drought, citizens are being urged to take out their lawns and install drought tolerant plants and landscaping. A new park should have a water source that does not discredit local government’s water conservation efforts. If the park can be serviced with recycled water, this issue could be overcome. However, the cost of a recycled water system would have to be added into the park project.
Homeless and Police Services
The park at 17th and G Street was recently sold to a private developer to build housing. The justification for selling the park was that it was used mostly by the homeless.
The proposed park is only 5 blocks away from the park that was recently sold off. One wonders whether the homeless population will choose to inhabit a new park built next to the Gallo Center. Will the presence of homeless individuals discourage visitation? Do the police have the manpower to monitor the park? Or, will it turn into another mostly empty hangout for the homeless and idle?
In San Francisco, Union Square has become known for crime problems: there are pickpockets, robberies, and assaults, especially after dark. Locals are wise to stay away at night. Tourists are often the victims. Modesto does not have the tourist base to keep the square occupied at night, so it will be empty much more than Union Square.
No Substitute for Good Planning
The time to have established the proposed park was when Modesto was first planned. The cost for the land and infrastructure would have been a pittance compared to the cost of the present proposal. When the benefit of a downtown park is compared to the potential benefit of capital projects outside of the downtown, the high cost of the proposed park would cause it to fall far down a list of proposed improvements to existing parks and other city priorities.
If the idea for a downtown park moves forward, expect a lot of controversy during the planning stage.