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Fence needs to come down at Guadalupe Plaza

August 8, 2018

Two years is no one’s idea of temporary. But that’s roughly how long a “temporary” chain-link fence has wrapped around Guadalupe Plaza on the city’s West Side. It needs to come down.

And, as the temporary fence foreshadows plans for a permanent fence, city officials, community leaders and West Side residents need to think long and hard about these plans. We don’t think fencing around Guadalupe Plaza makes sense. A plaza is an open space for the public. A fence that closes off the space to the public makes it the opposite.

It also is not a solution to concerns about drug use, prostitution, vagrancy and other types of criminal behavior in the plaza. A fence might move these illicit activities to other parts of the West Side, but it would not treat the drug addict or break the bonds of prostitution. It is no replacement for public health and policing strategies.

Built in 1984, Guadalupe Plaza belongs to the city of San Antonio. But it is managed by the Avenida Guadalupe Association, which has put up this “temporary” fencing and has drafted plans for a permanent wrought-iron fence.

In an interview, Gabriel Velasquez, the nonprofit’s executive director, told us the fence is necessary to protect the plaza from criminal activity and vandalism. The issues arise in the middle of the night when gang members, drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes enter the space, he said. In his view, a fence would control this place.

He also viewed the fence as a way to complete the vision for the plaza, which originally called for medical complex around the open space.

“The plaza was never designed to be as open as it is,” he said.

At times, though, his points were hard to follow. For example, Velasquez told us the “the plaza is the central focal point of the neighborhood.” He also called it the “central point for congregation” and repeatedly talked about how the plaza, in essence, belongs to the surrounding neighborhood.

All reasons to take down this ugly chain-link fence. All reasons to cast serious doubts about the rationale and efficacy of putting up a permanent fence. If the plaza is the heart and soul of the neighborhood, a place for people to congregate, it should be open

Sarah Gould, a member of the Westside Preservation Alliance, expressed some skepticism about the level of illicit activity at the plaza but said solutions reside with policing, social outreach and public health efforts.

“We are not convinced that a fence is doing anything to address those crimes,” she said. “And we also think the cost of putting a fence around the plaza, both monetarily and socially, is much higher than it is worth given the amount of arrests that have been made (there).”

The city of San Antonio has committed about $300,000 in community development block grant funding for the permanent fence, and officials have expressed support of the fence in the past.

“We are supportive of the fence and have the funding necessary for its construction and staff is working with Gabriel on its design,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston wrote in an email dated March 23, 2017.

However, in a recent interview, Houston said, “It has not been decided whether or not a permanent fence would be placed” at the plaza.

A community meeting is planned for later this month to help determine a vision for the plaza and whether a fence fits with that vision, she said. Any fence, she said, would come with requirements about access and accessibility, but she also cited the revamp of Travis Park downtown as a way to activate a public space without a fence.

Travis Park was once a magnet for homelessness but now features food trucks, movies, lifesize chess, a dog park and other activities.

District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales told us the chain-link fence “is not appropriate and not acceptable and needs to go.”

She was less clear about the prospect of a permanent fence, but said the CDBG funds could instead be used to improve lighting, bathrooms and kitchen space at the plaza. She would also like to see more shade.

Maybe the West Side community truly wants a fence around the plaza. We’ll see. But again, we question the value. A better approach would be to improve lighting and shading, and develop a plan to hold more events in the space. A better approach would incorporate policing and public health strategies.

A fence is an expedient response to entrenched challenges that deserve so much more attention.

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