Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – With bad behavior plaguing the Plaza and complaints about it thundering through City Hall and across social media, last week saw some new approaches to curbing excesses there, with even more radical solutions in the offing.
Wresting the Plaza away from those who smoke, drink, bellow obscenities, let their dogs run wild, sell dope and aggressively panhandle was simple, if costly. All it took was more cops.
“We’ve had significant complaints about a really big uptick in inappropriate activity,” said Police Chief Tom Chapman. “We’re trying to get a handle on it and also deal with some of the issues.”
The cops’ presence alone calmed the sometimes-scary town square, but not everyone got the message. One man offered to sell Mayor Susan Ornelas and a reporter some cannabis. When the offer was declined, he went around from person to person with the same proposition. Officers contacted him, found him in possession of cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, Suboxone (an opiate) and needles. He was arrested on a narcotics offense.
The enhanced police presence – a couple of extra officers, the park ranger and regular downtown officer – resulted in further citations through Friday.
As two breakfast boozers at the Plaza’s center were cited for guzzling vodka, a man and woman nearby were happy to see the cops, and felt comfortable unleashing their small children to run around and play on the lawn.
“We’re really supportive of the police presence out here,” said Will Folger. “We probably would have driven by [without them]. It’s an obvious day and night difference. It keeps the kooks from getting in your face and stacking up too much.”
As their two boys romped and squealed on the lawn, Folger lamented the deterioration of the square. “It’s not that we don’t want to come out here,” he said. “It’s that we can’t. There’s an element of seediness.”
As he spoke, a small group of musicians settled on the south lawn, playing meditative trance music on didgerido, tabla, hang (a form of idiophone), flute and fiddle. Hear an excerpt from their performance at YouTube.com/madriverunion.
“That’s part of the draw to living in Arcata,” Folger said of the musical ensemble. “But the normal counterculture folks are the exception. It’s morphed into a seedy underbelly.”
Chapman said that though effective, flooding the zone with officers was an expensive, interim measure. “It is important to say that it is not sustainable for the department,” the chief said. Besides draining APD’s overtime budget, standing around on the Plaza all day gazing at idlers gets old.
“It’s not a desirable assignment, but they’re professionals and will do their best,” Chapman said. “The police are part of the solution.”
Chapman noted that College of the Redwoods is graduating fewer trainees from its Basic Police Academy. Even though it has the money for another officer and offers a $7,000 signing bonus, APD is competing with other cities which offer larger bonuses and salaries.
Meanwhile, Plaza regulars are well familiar with downtown Officer Luke Scown’s hours and work schedule, and know when there will be no cops on the Plaza.
Meeting after meeting on Plaza problams over the years have brought reams of butcher paper loaded with supposed solutions to the chronic abuses, and yet the problems have only worsened.
Last week, a number of pillars of the community tried something genuinely new and different – talking to the problematic Plazoids. The questions were simple, centering around, “Who are you and what brings you here?”
The first day’s findings yielded a common theme, according to City Councilmember Brett Watson. Many among the sitabout set were, as many had assumed, trimmigrants – people from foreign lands who’d traveled to Arcata to hook up with a cannabis trimming job.
But undeniably, along with them are the regulars – Plazoids, for want of a better term, for whom the Plaza is base of operations, those operations centering around panhandling, smoking, drinking and yelling.
A related effort involved surveying Plaza businesspeople.
“The Chamber is looking at it from a business perspective,” said Joellen Clark-Peterson, Arcata Chamber of Commerce executive director. “Let’s go door to door, the old-fashioned way, and see what the businesses want and what would work – the top three things.”
Businesses were asked to rank Plaza problems from panhandling to illegal activity, and to identify solutions. These included private security, restrictions on alcohol sales and car camping, even putting parking meters on the Plaza and even relocating homeless services, among others.
Clark-Peterson said that one side of the Plaza was surveyed, with others to follow in coming weeks. Results, she said, would be shared with the City Council.
“It feels good to find out from the horse’s mouth, and it’s nice to have something measurable,” she said.
Apart from the data gathering, many bold new ideas are being batted around – some quite startling.
“How do we change the dynamic of the Plaza?” asked City Councilmember Sofia Pereira. “That’s a conversation we should have.”
The conversation will likely take the form of a City Council study session in which some radical solutions could be aired.
Some of those brainstorming ideas – councilmembers, businesspeople and regular old citizens – have allowed their imaginations to roam freely.
Among the ideas being tossed around are:
• Restrictions on Plaza alcohol sales. Bars could be asked to open later, and stores might restrict single-can sales.
• Compelling all the bars to serve food. An officer on the Plaza Friday noted that police are rarely called to the food-serving taverns; it’s the ones that infuse booze into the populace unfettered by nutrition that draw most calls for service.
• Using the Plaza for dining – allowing restaurants and/or food trucks to set up tables on the Plaza. This based on the long-observed phenomenon that normal social activity, such as that which occurs during community events like the Farmers’ Market, tends to push out and moderate the misbehavers.
• A children’s playground - maybe one that is inflatable and temporary.
• Closure of two of the Plaza’s streets to de-emphasize vehicular dominance.
“We feel like there’s a connection between the drop in business and the folks that are occupying the space and breaking the laws with day drinking and harassment,” Watson said.
“It’s a full circle thing, where we identify that we do need more police and services in Arcata, and the largest contributor to our General Fund is the sales tax,” he said. “So when the businesses aren’t doing well, then it hurts everyone.”
What if there were no Plaza? For one thing, there’d be no Plaza problems.
While the town square is here to stay, one nuclear option is to temporarily fence off the Plaza for some period of weeks, maybe a month, to do an “energy reset.”
In this scenario, those who habitually linger there to commit most of the abuses would have to go somewhere else, and maybe find a more appealing place to hang out all the time.
Multiple credible individuals confirmed that such an option has been raised, though no one has so far been willing to go on record with it or provide any details.
The Plaza has been fenced off before. It was surrounded by mesh fencing for weeks in the early 1990s for a renovation. The 2013 Oyster Festival saw the Plaza surrounded by cyclone fencing to keep unruly drunks out. That action, while effective, was generally not well received.
Troubled town squares in San Francisco and Garberville have also been closed for brief periods after complaints of abuse.
Also missing in action last week was Arcata’s Public Safety Task Force. The task force has been struggling to complete its mission without significant participation from the public and flagging attendance by its members.
Last week, the task force’s meeting was canceled when it was unable to raise a quorum. It’s not clear whether that meeting will be made up.