The city's Center City Development and Operations (CCDO) department, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and the local chapter of Latinos in Architecture unveiled an updated concept plan for Plaza Guadalupe to an audience of about 60 people Thursday night at El Progreso Hall on the near West Side, across from the plaza.
The new concept plan features what was described as a compromise of having partial fencing on certain areas of the plaza while having a five-foot fence surrounding the playground area next to El Paso Street.
For months, some neighbors and advocacy groups have fought to remove a chain-link that was erected in 2016 by the Avenida Guadalupe Association, the nonprofit that leases the plaza from the city. The nonprofit put up the fence as a deterrent against criminal activity, mainly drug use, they said. The advocates argued the fence painted the West Side community as criminals. Last year, when the public meetings began, the city opened the plaza for the hours of 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
The five-foot fence is planned on being constructed out of wrought iron and would be placed on top of the three-foot concrete barrier already in place. The fence area facing El Paso is proposed to act as a communal wall to showcase the art and talent within the neighborhood.
In the concept plan, fencing would also enclose the playground area (a proposal Councilwoman Gonzales has been adamant about adding) and the parking lot facing El Paso. A fence or landscape element would be added behind the stage facing Kicaster Alley, and in the section between the Margarita Huantes Learning Center and the plaza entryway on Guadalupe Street. There is no fence that completely surrounds the plaza and both entryways will remain open to allow the plaza to be accessible 24/7.
The concept of a partial fence was met with mixed reviews.
"I do not like that there is still fencing around the plaza," said Mary Ann Hernandez, 63.
She and other community members want Guadalupe Plaza to be more open and welcoming like all the other plazas.
Landscaping work has already begun, while other phases await approval.
The $300,000 in funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant program that Avenida Guadalupe has access to—money that has been aside for over a year—would pay for the first phase.
“I like the fence," said Maria Tijerina, 72. "It might be a good idea to have a gate that closes for private events—for safety and security."
She also stated that the improvements on accessibility in the plaza were good to see.
The plans will now go to the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) in April for final approval in order for the restoration and necessary construction can begin.
If the plan gets approved in April, construction (fencing, landscaping, flatwork) can begin as soon as May and end in September, officials said.
As for security, regular police patrols will continue, and more lighting is said to be one of the improvements.
Upgrades are planned to be made to better comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the plan calls for a shade structure to be built over the main plaza area, but will only happen if there is additional money.
Some community members are still very unhappy with the plans for the plaza and wish that there would be no fence at all, while others were content with the outcome.
“The plaza wasn’t being used as intended,” said Gonzales told media members before the meeting. “It needed a refresher.”
Renderings have been made available online on the CCDO website.
Tuesday night at El Progreso Hall on the near West Side, volunteers with the local chapter of Latinos in Architecture (LiA) showed 50 or so community members two design concepts for Plaza Guadalupe—one with a fence surrounding it, the other without.
LiA discussed the possibility of having a fence that would "soften the edges" facing El Paso Street, which faces the neighborhood behind the plaza, and having a see-through fence facing the busier, more commercial Guadalupe Street, so passersby could see events or activities happening inside. It's ultimately up to city officials and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales to decide.
Other recommendations were gleaned from feedback community members gave at four previous meetings. For example, they recommended the Avenida Guadalupe Association, which leases the plaza from the city, involve the community in cleaning the plaza daily. They suggested users advocate for more funding for the plaza.
Programming should run the gamut from flea markets on the weekends to substance abuse education programs to live music, they said.
They also recommended access to the restroom be improved for wheelchair-bound users, and that the restrooms themselves be upgraded. More signage, shade at the center of the plaza, and improved seating should be added, they said.
While presenting all concepts, LIA emphasized wanting to ensure the plaza be a fun space.
The group will submit its plans to the city, and the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO) and Councilwoman Gonzales' office will look over the plans, and review feedback gathered at the public meetings this year, in January. But no timetable beyond that has been worked out, CCDO Interim Assistant Director Veronica Garcia said.
Gonzales told attendees she preferred some type fence or landscaping around the plaza—something not too imposing. She was particularly adamant about putting up a fence around the playground, and said other more basic upgrades should also happen as soon as possible.
“There’s no need to delay on bathrooms and lighting,” Gonzales told the room.
The city has about $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds allocated for Plaza Guadalupe.
She suggested the city consider redesigning the plaza as a way to avoid having a fence—a $1-$2 million type of project that could potentially be funded in the next bond program.
“I won’t be here for your next bond,” Gonzales said. “If we start it, it will more than likely be moved on by whoever replaces me in the next two years.”
After LiA's presentation, the meeting broke into small discussion groups, which were to be lead by questions handed out on comment cards. Some groups followed the format, others had more open discussion as some attendees peppered LiA members about the plans' specifics, and the overall process involving the city.
“People who don’t know the neighborhood see the fence and think it’s a bad neighborhood,” Brenda Gomez, 44, said.
There were seven discussion groups, each consisting of five to eight people. Almost every single group member agreed that there should be no fence at all, but some were willing to compromise to have a fence around the playground for the children.
Yolanda Sosa, 69, said she was for the fence because it would allow the plaza to stay safe and clean -- especially for the children.
“A fence isn’t going to take (the issues) away, but it will help,” said Sosa.
The Avenida Guadalupe Association erected the fence around Plaza Guadalupe in August 2016 as a way to deter drug and prostitution activity.
The public discussions about Plaza Guadalupe's future began in April after some community members, lead by the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, criticized the 24/7 fence. The city eventually opened up the plaza 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. daily, and began hosting movie nights, as a way to activate the park immediately.
The next one is "The Polar Express," which will be screened 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, at Plaza Guadalupe, 1327 Guadalupe St.
Historically, a plaza is a place of gathering and community, where neighbors and family come together to catch up, play games and enjoy one another’s company.
The Guadalupe Plaza, as many people have said, is the heart of the West Side, and has become a point of disagreement for many in the community since a chain-link fence was erected in 2016 as a crime deterrent by the nonprofit that leases the space from the city.
After a backlash from some residents and community activists in recent months, the city has opened up the plaza again 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and has hosted movie nights. It also hosted a series of community meetings recently in search of ideas for a longterm solution.
The plan will be unveiled 6-8 p.m. tonight (Dec. 18) at El Progresso Hall, 1306 Guadalupe St. Free food will be provided by the city.
The plaza was built in 1984 and has been the stage for many events—some annual and some historic such as Pope John Paul II's visiting in 1987 and President Barack Obama's stop in 2008.
Over time, activity in the plaza had decreased and had allegedly led to unwanted activity at night: drug users, prostitution, and homeless people using it in ways the plaza was not designed for.
The Avenida Guadalupe Association, the nonprofit that holds the lease from the city through 2029, says the undesirable activity had become so bad, the only way to solve the problem was to surround the plaza with a fence.
It was that way for two years until community activists began speaking out over the summer.
"To allow this space that’s supposed to be public commons, to what it is now, is very sad," said Sarah Gould, director of the fledgling Museo del Westside, an initiative of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center.
Gould said the fence reinforces negative ideas that people already have of the West Side.
"It bothers me that people have fear over those who could easily be their relatives," Gould said.
Gould continued, saying that having a gate or fence around the plaza transforms it from a public space to a private one.
Rick Uriegas, vice president of Actions United for Entertainers and Diverse Artists (AUEDA), also serves on the Avenida Guadalupe Association (AGA) board, and said there was a lot of activity happening that wasn't good for the neighborhood.
“The plaza is the heart of the neighborhood,” said Uriegas. “This place is a diamond in the rough.”
Uriegas said since the fence has been up, the unfavorable activity has stopped.
The level of criminal or unwanted activity that happened before the fence is something neither side can agree on.
“At the public meetings Center City Development & Operations Department (CCDO) has held thus far, we heard broad agreement that security is needed in the plaza," District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said in an email.
Many community members and people who live near the plaza have wondered why the fence is still up, and why it has taken so long to do something about it.
Gonzales said the "visioning process for Plaza Guadalupe has been an ongoing process that began in spring 2017."
"The community engagement process has taken time because we want to make sure that everyone's voices are heard during the visioning process," Gonzales wrote.
Gabriel Quintero Velasquez, AGA's executive director, described the plaza as "the birthplace of the Mexican-American community." He said AGA "went through years of consideration," drew up plans for a permanent fence and showcased the plans to anyone who asked to view them.
Avenida Guadalupe didn’t want to put up the fence, Velasquez said, but the drug problem wasn't going to stop without it; having a fence is "the only way it would be safe,” he said
Velasquez said the plaza is a place for the neighborhood have events that they imagine doing.
“It (the plaza) means many things,” Velasquez said. “It would be a symbol of progress.”
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has been fighting the fence, and its members say the arrest numbers don’t add up to the AGA's claims about prostitution and drug users.
According to research Esperanza conducted using LexisNexis, between 2010 and 2018 there have been two incidents of drug crimes—one in 2011 and one in 2017—and only one sex trafficking incident in 2015.
But Avenida Guadalupe staff has been consistent with its anecdotal evidence.
Richard Pferrman, an Avenida Guadalupe Association employee, spoke at a Dec. 4 public meeting, and said people have told him the plaza is in much better condition after the fence was put up.
“They’re like … since the fence has been up, the plaza smells good,” Pferrman said. "It doesn’t smell like urine anymore. It doesn’t smell like feces. I don’t have to worry about my kid being poked by a needle."
“A lot of people just don’t see it. Yeah, we have to keep it open to the public. That’s understandable, but for certain hours, which is what we do now.”
Amelia Valdez, who works with Esperanza, said with the fence around the plaza, no one knows if it's open or closed.
Valdez continued to say that while walking around the public space, she's seen elderly people sitting outside the fence.
"Since the fence has been up, there have been fights and arguments for more policing," Valdez said.
Paul De La Torre, 51, who lives in the neighborhood said he wants vagrants and graffiti out of the plaza, and also wants it open for the everyone.
De La Torre said he wouldn’t mind a fence or gate if it was something nicer than the current fence.
Sylvia Martinez, 62, also lives in the neighborhood and said she thinks it’s safer to have a gate and that it will keep the plaza in good condition.
Martinez said she goes to the plaza for events and to be around people.
Both De La Torre and Martinez have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives and want the plaza to be safer.
On Tuesday night for close to 2½ hours, community members and neighbors aired their thoughts on Plaza Guadalupe during a listening session at El Progreso Hall, across from the plaza, the fourth community meeting before the city unveils a long-term strategy for space in two weeks.
Since late August, the city of San Antonio has held public meetings on the near-West Side plaza in response to concerns from some citizens about a chain-linked fence, which had surrounded the plaza for two years at that time. In August 2016, the Avenida Guadalupe Association, the nonprofit organization that leases the plaza from the city, erected the fence for an event, but decided to leave it up to deter drug addicts from using the space.
The city and the Avenida Guadalupe Association recently opened the plaza from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Many people who spoke Tuesday night said that having a fence doesn’t fix the drug or prostitution problem, it only pushes it away.
"By putting up the fence and alleging that it is necessary, you are criminalizing the whole neighborhood," said Elva Treviño, a lawyer who lives on the West Side. "You are not trusting us."
However, there was a considerable presence from people who want the fence to remain in some fashion because, they say, it has helped combat crime and improve the condition of the plaza.
"You can put a nice fence up there, make the hours longer, more accessible to the public, which is fine, but it has to be safe for everybody," said Sandy Rodriguez, a member of Guardians of the Children, which holds a free public event at the plaza every year. "You're not going to tell me they’re not going back to the old ways, because they will."
Richard Pferrman, who works for the Avenida Guadalupe Association, said some groups and organizations that use the plaza for special events tell him how much better condition it’s in.
"They're like … since the fence has been up, the plaza smells good," Pferrman said. "It doesn't smell like urine anymore. It doesn't smell like feces. I don't have to worry about my kid being poked by a needle."
"A lot of people just don’t see it. Yeah, we have to keep it open to the public. That’s understandable, but for certain hours, which is what we do now."
Since the community discussion about the future of Plaza Guadalupe began, the city of San Antonio has also been hosting movie nights.
The next one is "The Polar Express" (2004), which will be shown at dusk at the plaza on Dec. 21.
Xavier Sanchez, a lifelong West Side resident, said when the fence was first put up, he couldn’t enter the plaza with his granddaughter. Sanchez, a former Lanier Vok who still lives nearby, said he doesn't see the criminal activity.
“Has anybody done any fact checking to demonstrate that there is criminal activity?” Sanchez asked.
Sanchez, referencing President Ronald Reagan’s famous message to Mikhail Gorbachev, told District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, “Tear down that fence,” before stepping away from the podium.
The final meeting to review the conceptual plan for the plaza, which is being crafted by the local chapter of Latinos in Architecture, will be held 6-8 p.m. Dec. 18 at El Progreso Hall, 1306 Guadalupe St.
Setting It Straight: The original version of this article stated that "Instructions Not Included" would be screened Friday, Dec. 7, at the plaza. It was canceled because of rain.
About 50 neighbors, local business owners and public officials gathered at Guadalupe Plaza on the West Side for the third city-hosted community plática, where they discussed ways to activate the public space while maintaining safety.
"Hemisfair is more comparable to this (plaza); apply the same amount of security here," Grace Rose Gonzales said to her circle of eight, which agreed with her observation. "Our city government panders to tourism."
Gonzales added that the plaza should be an open space, and she would like to see a flow of people from one side of the block to the other—from El Paso to Guadalupe street.
The series of meetings, which formally began in late August, are in response to community concern about a chain-link fence that was erected in August 2016 by the Avenida Guadalupe Association, the nonprofit group that leases the public space from the city. The association put up the fence to try to clamp down on drug activity.
Since the pushback, the city has opened up the plaza 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. In October, it began screening movies there. The next one is "Corpse Bride," 8 p.m. at the plaza, 1327 Guadalupe St.
But those are temporary measures as the city and the AIA San Antonio Latinos in Architecture Committee craft a conceptual plan for the plaza that will be released on Dec. 4—a culmination of the ideas the neighborhood has generated over the past three meetings.
At last night's meeting, a history of plazas was given, which was followed by Latinos in Architecture members discussing other plaza designs that could help influence improvements to Guadalupe Plaza. The audience then broke out into groups to explore ways to activate the space, and resolve the issue of the fence.
A few people observed the meeting had fewer attendees than the 100 who gave input at the last gathering in September. Some groups began talking about ideas right away, others started off by reviewing what a plaza is supposed to be, and worked their way to discussing how to activate the space.
Isaac Alvarez Cardenas, 62, a longtime resident said some level of security would be nice to see if it remained open, but he also wouldn’t mind a simpler solution.
"If (the plaza) was active all the time, you wouldn't need security," Cardenas said.
Some community members said everyone should know about the plaza, even tourists.
"No place on the West Side is mentioned in visiting San Antonio," historian Antonia Castaneda, 76, said about visitsanantonio.com and its tourist destination listings.
There was a consensus that having vendors out every day would be a good way to activate the space, as well as daily activities such as yoga and Zumba classes.
A constant criticism of the Avenida Guadalupe Association and its jobs managing the plaza was voiced, saying that new management, or having someone who is culturally competent, would be a better fit.
"People should leave their politics at home," Avenida Guadalupe Association Executive Director Gabriel Velasquez said in response to the management comments. "Avenida Guadalupe developed it, we’re not part of the problem."
Everyone in attendance agreed the plaza is a beautiful space and that activating it would solve many issues, including the ones the fence addresses.
During the meeting, Veronica Garcia, Interim Assistant Director for the Center City Development and Operations department, said the city has $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds that could be used for more shade or lighting, to improve the sound system, or other upgrades.
Frustrations linger on Guadalupe Plaza fence
In an attempt to begin to reactivate Guadalupe Plaza on the near West Side, which has had a fence surrounding it since 2016, the city and a nonprofit contracted to oversee the public space have opened it up once more from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Also, the city will begin to host movie nights at the plaza starting Oct. 12 with a screening of "Selena."
The efforts are short-term solutions while the city continues to gather community input, which began with a public meeting in late August, for a more permanent plan that the city hopes to reach in December.
However, many of the more than 100 who attended a public meeting Tuesday night on the future of the plaza put city officials on the spot, asking why a chain-link fence, which has surrounded the plaza since August 2016, is still up.
The second meeting on the future of the Guadalupe Plaza on the near West Side on Tuesday night produced a constant dialogue that was sometimes heated among the more than 100 community members who attended.
The meeting, hosted by the city of San Antonio, was held on the plaza's theater space, as attendees shared their personal history with the plaza.
The fence was erected by the nonprofit Avenida Guadalupe Association, which holds the lease on the plaza, and six other city-owned properties in the vicinity, through 2029.
The fencing was first put up by AGA in 2016 as a temporary measure for a Diez y Seis de Septembre event, but stayed up to the keep out heroin addicts who would frequent the plaza, said Gabriel Velasquez, the association’s executive director.
"The heroin situation was off the chart," Velasquez said.
In May 2017, the association was granted a certificate of appropriateness by the city to surround the plaza with a fence, even though the fence went up nine months prior. Some in the audience, mainly members of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, wondered why the fence is still up, considering the fact that the certificate expired four months ago in May.
"It is devastating that the solution to criminal activity is a fence," said Sarah Gould, a local historian who was recently tapped to develop the Westside Community Museum, a project scheduled to open next year in the old Ruben's Icehouse at Guadalupe and South Colorado streets, a stone’s throw from the plaza.
"There has to be a design solution that doesn't make the community feel like criminals," Gould said.
Veronica Garcia, interim assistant director of the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO), said the fence remains up because there was never a community input process, which the city is now in the middle of. The meetings so far, she says, have been inconclusive in terms of an agreement on the fence, and the plaza's hours of operation.
For fiscal year 2019, the city provided the AGA, which began leasing the plaza in 2009, with $142,000 to help pay for salaries related to the management and maintenance of the plaza. Also included in the upcoming budget is $100,000 for programming and security, which the CCDO will manage.
The city does not charge the AGA rent on the lease.
In August 2017, the City Council awarded $304,500 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for "plaza facility improvements," which can include a fence, Garcia told attendees. On Sept. 30, the contract was renewed for another 90 days, and those funds will be used for whatever solution the community meetings produce, she said.
The plaza remains open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, but can be closed for private events.
Two more meetings are scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Oct. 29 and Dec. 4, the locations of which have not been determined.