Plaza Merchants, Parks Committee Forge Staunch Anti-Fence Advisory

Friday, September 20, 2013
Workers from the Craftsman's Mall install the OysterFence in the early morning hours of June 15. KLH | Eye

Workers from the Craftsman’s Mall install the OysterFence in the early morning hours of June 15. KLH | Eye

  Kevin L. Hoover 


PLAZA – Hay bales good; barbed-wire fence bad. Business promotion good; killing business for a day bad. Beer good and bad, but not worth turning the Plaza into a gated community.

These were some of the takeaways from last week’s Parks and Rec Committee meeting, where an agenda item about special event regulations on the Plaza brought out several downtown business owners.

Unresolved issues surround last June’s Oyster Festival, just like the controversial fence did the Plaza that day. Seeking solutions to unruly behavior and overall crowd control, Arcata Main Street installed a fence to enclose the event. But exact positioning of the fence proved complicated and divisive.

A public forum promised by Arcata Main Street in which the matter would be discussed hasn’t materialized, and last week’s meeting was the first opportunity affected businesses had to initiate any changes in City policy.

“We wanted to take a step back and have a discussion on crowd control on the Plaza and charging for Plaza events,” said Karen Diemer, deputy director of Environmental Services.

She stressed that the fence was “not a precedent, just a trial run.”

The bizfolk ruled that trial’s verdict as guilty – of harming their stores. But it was they, the victims of the ill-fated plan, they asserted, who had already served an unjust, day-long sentence at a Plaza prison.

Moonrise Herbs owner Irene Lewis’s views were typical of other Plaza businessfolk.

She said sales at her store, which was inside the OysterFence, were down 60 percent, but apart from that, creating privileged-access zones in a public space was fundamentally bothersome.

“I really felt like people should be able to come and go,” Lewis said. “I feel like it’s public space. I really don’t think people should be charged for coming into the center of town.”

Moonrise, like Belle Starr across the Plaza, had attempted a system of having customers call ahead to be met at the gate and escorted in to shop. But, Lewis said, “It didn’t really work.”

Steve Lovett, owner of People’s Records, isn’t against Plaza fences per se, just not for traditional daytime events.

His store was closed off from the Plaza, but still somewhat isolated from the outside world inside the chainlink corridor leading from Eighth and G streets to All Under Heaven.

“I can see closing it off on Halloween to keep people from destroying it,” he said, noting the barbed wire on some sections of the rented fence. “Aesthetically, I thought it was horrible. This is Arcata, not Compton.”

Hot Knots owner Gail Shackleton was “horrified by the way it made the Plaza look and feel.” She said the fence proposal “put businesses in a terrible choice,” to “stand with the town and support be being inside, or ‘defect’ and be outside the fence.”

She said it was “very unfair to charge people to come and shop in our store,” and “a total lose-lose situation for the businesses on the Plaza.” She said that moving the event would be a better solution.

Belle Starr owner Lola Kelsey faulted Arcata Main Street for intimidation, chaotic planning and the subsequent divisive debacle. “We were all played, ‘Oh you’re the only asshole that wants to be outside the fence.’ I acquiesced.”

She said Main Street Director Jennifer Koopman had told that her store would be outside the fence just a day or two before the festival.

That last-minute modification was because of legal threats by Luke’s Joint owner Luke Patterson, which forced installation of another sidewalk tunnel leading up from Eighth and H street. “Business was down 80 percent,” she said, concluding that “If you’re trying to help businesses, first, do no harm.”

Solutions owners Kevin Johnson and Lisa Brown said the fence test was a failure, creating what she called “two bad choices.” The store, which was inside the festival and sealed off from casual shoppers, lost 60 percent of its sales. Further, Brown said, “It violated my sense of what the Plaza is.”

Art Center owner Mary Lou Bertolini said the fence “made you feel that you were in a prison camp.” She questioned Main Street’s dependence on beer sales to support itself.

“Does Arcata Main Street need to make its money on alcohol?” she asked. “Not on oysters, not on other events?” I think Main Street needs to revisit why they’re there that day and the focus.”

City Council candidate Paul Pitino voiced a popular philosophical objection. “It’s our public space,” he said. “You’re crossing a line when you fence that off… Its a big drunkfest for out-of-town people.”

Main Street Director Jennifer Koopman wasn’t present at the meeting. She hadn’t known about the agenda item, and had no comment when told about the discussion afterward.

Then it was the committee’s turn to bash the fence. Committeemember Steve Martin called it “a giant one-size-fits-all solution to target a small set of people.” He was concerned about the precedent the fence set. “I will protest until I’m blue in the face,” he said.

Chair Nancy Starck said the fence “violated my sense of the Plaza. I was personally very offended by the prison-like atmosphere. This is not a place where you charge people to walk across grass.”

Committeemembers agreed that demarcation with hay bales would be all right, but not a full-on barrier.

Martin, the most enthused about putting the committee on record as opposing the fence, made a motion that “this type of fencing not be used for any future events on the Plaza. That we come up with more elegant and creative solution to beer problem. That Plaza remains open and unfenced during public events and freely accessible at all times.”

The motion passed unanimously.

The advisory will be passed along to the City Council, which would make any final decision.

Police Chief Tom Chapman said that the current plan for preserving public safety on Halloween consists of the time-tested method used during recent Halloween and New Year’s holidays, which is a combination of temporary fencing and a sizable contingent of APD and other police officers.

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