News : Need some plaza background?

So do the people who use it

The discussion of Main Plaza and its architecturally redesigned future is no stranger to the River City. The Mayor and various city-council members have held public meetings, and Main Plaza ain’t hurtin’ for ink or air time in the local press. But just to recap, here’s what’s transpired to date:

Seven months ago, San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger announced plans to redevelop the city’s utilitarian Main Plaza, causing tensions to run high. The initial design required closing down all four streets flanking the plaza. Arguments ensued, factions developed on sides both supporting and opposing the plan, and the criticism and chaos over the closing of all four streets forced the mayor to revamp the design. That brings us to the proposal in its current incarnation: Only the north-south streets Main and Soledad will be closed, leaving open the east-west thoroughfares Commerce and Market.

This revised plan garnered strong support and ultimately won approval from City Council last week, drawing opposing votes only from District 1’s Roger Flores and District 5’s Patti Radle. Apparently, the two weren’t satisfied with Hardberger’s compromise. Flores pleaded with his colleagues to postpone the vote until more traffic studies could be done, and he still says there are too many unanswered questions surrounding the $10-million project.

“Because this project did not evolve from a grassroots community effort, and there’s not an emergent human need, I feel that it is incumbent upon us to provide adequate and complete answers to every question that our citizenry poses,” he said at a press conference. “We should not push forward without having done the due diligence that is not only required of us, but that we promised our communities when we ask for their support as elected officials.”

The council’s resolution supporting what some are calling the Mayor’s “pet project” includes adding more square footage and green space to the concrete-laden plaza. The renovations are scheduled to begin this fall and could be finished by Summer 2007. Cue applause from some of the biggest politicos and businessmen in the city, who want to connect Central Downtown with the near-West Side, from the River Walk through Main Plaza and Market Square, and onto UTSA’s downtown campus just west of I-35. Bigwigs such as Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Father David Garcia of San Fernando Cathedral, and Mi Tierra owner George Cortez, all addressed the council last week, giving various reasons why the project should move forward. Wolff and Judge John Specia of the 225th District Court said the revamped plaza would create a place that county employees and jurors could use for lunch breaks. Local organizations, such as the Paseo Del Rio Association, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also cheered for the plans.

Those who oppose the redevelopment project as it’s been proposed, or at least the part that would close streets, say it puts the city’s interests second, and the tourists’ first. Opponents put no faith in incomplete traffic studies that say closing Main and Soledad won’t add but a minute or two to commute time, even during rush-hour traffic.

Indeed, the conversations going on in the hallowed City Council chambers just a couple dozen steps from the plaza proper seemed centered more around the possibility of inconveniencing motorists and affecting business than what the upgrades might mean for the people who frequent Main Plaza. Like the pigeons who peck endlessly at the the plaza’s ground, those people and their opinions seem to have been pushed aside.

On most days, dozens of San Antonians pass time in Main Plaza, swapping stories, eating raspas, and feeding the birds. While a fine mist blows off the McAllister Fountain, providing relief from the hot summer days, some walk laps around the area, passing by the San Fernando Cathedral, the Bexar County Courthouse, and the city’s Municipal Plaza building where the council meets.

While discussions about Main Plaza heated up in the council chambers last week, the Current went to get opinions about the plan from people who already spend time there. These folks largely aren’t involved with municipal matters. Many of them arrive each day by bus, as they have no cars. For them, the plaza isn’t some far-flung place they visit twice a year. It’s a very real center, a locale to congregate, a spot tell stories, a site to just be.

Old men with straw fedora hats and wooden canes hobble through the plaza in no certain direction. Younger men with sleeves of tattoos laugh and banter back and forth. Ladies sit in solitude, and young couples push strollers through the plaza, stopping to dip their children’s tiny toes into the fountain’s chilly water. It, too, is their plaza, though their stories haven’t been told.

One woman digging through her purse said she didn’t want anything changed. “It’s too much trouble,” she said. But she said her friend Alma Garza, who spends her days on a bench near the fountain, would have more to say on the subject.

At first, Garza echoed the same “leave it be” sentiment. But when visions of more trees, grass, and benches ripened in her mind, she conceded that improvements would be good. Hearing for the first time details about the proposed changes, Garza said the revitalized plaza would be better than the current park.

Like Garza, many of the plaza-goers were shaky on the details. Some shunned the idea for the trouble it would cause during renovations. Others didn’t care one way or another. “It’s up to the city,” one man said. “I don’t even vote.”

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