Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The City Council held a joint session with the Plaza Improvement Task Force last week, with Arcata’s elected reps giving late course corrections as the task force compiles its final report.
Both bodies are interested in creating a useful document for reforming Arcata’s popular but problematic downtown park, whose shortcomings have persisted despite the countless meetings and miles of butcher paper expended on them over the decades.
This time, the best problem-solvers Arcata could bring to bear on the matter have effectively been budgeted some $150,000, which will be used to enact whatever short-, medium- and long-term goals the council ultimately adopts.
The task force is working from a massive database of suggestions for Plaza improvement harvested via its multi-month outreach effort. Those are being rated based on their doability and conformance with council goals.
The draft recommendations are grouped under five headings, summarized as: access and connectivity, beautification and infrastructure, programming (scheduled activities); safety and regulation, and economic development.
Last week’s meeting was the first in which the council has actively involved itself in the group’s deliberations. Even while advising the task force about effectiveness, councilmembers at times found it impossible to keep their own comments from getting too deep in the detail weeds, and from advocating for some of their long-held fixes.
However, the proceedings were wholly unencumbered by butcher paper.
Members of the public started off with suggestions: that the town square be rename the Arcata Peace Plaza, that more vehicle parking be constructed, and that any reforms be boldly non-vehicular and low in carbon consequences.
Keenan Hilton said that in his travels, people-oriented spaces like pedestrian malls offer the most pleasant experiences.
Alex Stillman said Arcata lacks the population density to support pedestrianizing the Plaza.”I’m asking that we don’t eliminate the current kind of transportation,” she said.
Task Force Chair Jayne McGuire outlined the “very extensive process” which delivered the raw data. This included surveys in English and Spanish with 860 responses, plus outreach to specific groups, event organizers and businesses.
Previous Plaza groups’ findings were reviewed, as was comment by city committees. “We had a ton of data,” Maguire said.
Councilmember Paul Pitino lobbied for creation of an alcohol service fee – a surcharge on booze served and sold on the Plaza, to pay for alcohol enforcement and education.
“The service fee could give us money to educate businesses,” Pitino said.
Hotel Arcata Manager Sherri Potter said the Plaza bars are responsible for chronic “noise and disruptiveness,” which she called a “huge, huge issue.”
She said bar patrons are “badly overserved,” and emerge from the bars to harass female college students. “I see that every day,” she said.
“They’ll just keep serving until you fall down,” Pitino said.
Since bad behavior is minimized when police officers are around, police coverage was discussed.
Officers assigned to the Plaza had told the task force that they were on duty there from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days per week, but this seemed not to play out in practice.
Maguire noted that not everyone wants a stepped-up police presence.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas suggested that Arcata needs a trolley system of some kind, but specifics weren’t detailed.
Councilmember Sofia Pereira lauded the task force’s prices, praising its “great outreach”
Task Force member Dan Bixler asked whether the city might formalize the suggestion that a transportation loop be created to extend to the Old Creamery and back via Ninth and Seventh streets, and create an image of it for reference. Pitino was less than enthused.
“I don’t need anybody to draw it and show me how I’m going to have to cross K Street twice,” he said.
Pereira urged the task force to focus on low effort/high reward items that can deliver immediate results.
Task Force member Anjali Browning suggested that the group deliver a list to city staff and let them prioritize items, based on cost and practicality.
Pitino said that the Plaza looks unfinished since the statue of President William McKinley was removed.
“We have not completed that operation,” he said.”The planter tells the community you’re not done.”
Task Force member Erica Grey suggested that the Plaza Improvement Task Force break with tradition by making real change.
“I’ve been coming to these meetings since 1995, hearing the same recommendations and nothing’s been done,” Grey said. She urged bold change, and taking risks on initiatives even if they may not work. “Everybody wants change,” she said.
“It would be great to get a list of your changes,” Pitino said. “You’ll get ’em,” she replied.
“This is a big chapter in a large book,” said Task Force member Moonlight Macumber.