Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) on Wednesday gave its approval for fencing, gates, and other changes to the historic Plaza Guadalupe.
The HDRC approved a request from the Avenida Guadalupe Association, which built and maintains the West Side plaza, for a certificate of appropriateness that will allow it to fence the park and install new gating at three entrance points. The project would also establish an art wall for rotating murals and enhance access to the park according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifications.
Some improvements to the lighting and landscape have already been completed, and funding has been secured for programming, entertainment, and community services in the plaza.
Avenida put a chain-link fence around the plaza in 2016, citing after-hours safety concerns and a need to control criminal activity in the plaza such as drug use in the plaza and its playground.
The fence drew criticism from some area residents who said the barrier closes off a public space and goes against the plaza’s original intent as a community space. Other residents voiced a desire for fencing due to concerns about crime in the area.
Last year, the City held several public meetings to discuss the future of the plaza, which is owned by the City. Following that process, the Latinos in Architecture organization presented two potential designs to community members in December – one that fenced the entire plaza and the other that only fenced the playground. A third and final concept was developed by Avenida Guadalupe, the Center City Development Operations, and the Office of Historic Preservation in consultation with LIA, and presented to community members on March 7.
Avenida Executive Director Gabriel Velasquez said the proposal presented to HDRC is a compromise between what Avenida hoped to achieve with fencing and what area residents voiced in public meetings, which included the need for more lighting and activity in the plaza.
That plan calls for 24/7 open entry to the plaza at the Guadalupe and El Paso street entryways, 5-foot fencing around most of the perimeter, and rolling gates in other areas that could be open during daylight hours only or for events inside and outside the plaza.
Dozens of longtime residents of the West Side community and others spoke in opposition to the plan at Wednesday’s meeting, drawing the discussion late into the evening.
A representative from the San Antonio Conservation Society urged the commission to deny the request, saying, “Urban plazas are by definition open public spaces and a permanent fence that limits public access is simply not appropriate for this location.”
An Episcopalian priest who grew up in the area said it was an affront to West Side values, and challenged the fact that Hemisfair is open. “But on the West Side, it’s locked up and people are forced to pay to use it,” said the Rev. Richard Aguilar. A historian called the fence an insult and likened it to a “class war.” Other concerned citizens read letters against the fence written by poet laureate Carmen Tafolla and former City Councilwoman and activist Maria Berriozábal.
Berriozábal wrote: “A fence around the plaza will be a symbol of everything we do not want our city to be.”
A local college student presented her findings from crime research of the area, and a businesswoman came dressed in a papal costume to remind commissioners of a pope’s visit there in 1987. One 97-year-old man said the fence would destroy historic tradition. Others said the fence would privatize and monetize the plaza. Amelia Valdez, president of the Historic Westside Residents Association, asked for more time to discuss the plan.
But a woman who said she volunteers at the adjacent Our Lady of Guadalupe Church told the commission that the church has long struggled with criminal activity that spills over from the plaza and that the current chain-link fencing has cut down on the problems they have faced.
Velasquez echoed her comment: “Since the (temporary) fencing went up, the neighborhood has been living in relative peace.”
Commissioners voiced doubt about whether the plan will provide the security it is meant to provide, but acknowledged that most plazas around the world have some sort of strong boundary system with control points. The HDRC approved the request with the stipulation that Avenida and the City consider studying how added lighting and activities impact the plaza if gates remain open during the nighttime hours.