Next week, the city will begin the transition to restricting public access to McClatchy Square in downtown Modesto in response to complaints about homeless people who frequent the park.
Officials have slightly revised a plan to make the park available by reservation only and to step up enforcement of park rules. Under the plan, the park will be open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for people wanting to have lunch there.
"The park really is no longer a public park," City Councilman Joe Muratore said Friday. "Ten to 15 people, who tended to camp in the park all day, made the park unusable for the 15,000 other people who work in the downtown. I think this is a step toward reclaiming the park for its original intent."
The small park, at 15th and I streets, will be closed Tuesday for about two weeks of maintenance, and officials will continue to discuss a reservation management agreement with the McHenry Mansion Foundation.
The city expects to complete the maintenance work about July 16. Once the city has an agreement with the foundation, the reservation process will go into effect, said Judith Ray, deputy director of the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department.
The maintenance work will include painting, trimming plants, repairing sprinklers, replacing cedar mulch and repairing lights. Workers, assisted by the Modesto Garden Club, will replace rose identification cards in the garden, dedicated to Julio and Aileen Gallo.
The city charges groups $45 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, for exclusive park reservations.
"The most important part is getting it cleaned up so people will want to use it," Ray said.
In early June, the City Council voted 4-3 to impose the restrictions after complaints that the homeless had taken over the square.
It touched off a heated debate between merchants who complain about substance abuse, drug deals and public urination in the park and residents who want the park to stay open to the public.
Some residents still want the city to consider other solutions.
"I don't think when you have a municipal problem, the solution is to close the property," said Robert Farrace, a Modesto attorney who is moving his office downtown.
He said a police unit that works downtown could discourage homeless people from dominating the park. City staff members asked charitable groups to stop using the park for food programs.
"Maybe there should be some enforcement to prohibit the conduct, or maybe they need to put temporary (restroom) facilities at the park," said Jeff Weidner of Modesto. "To exclude a whole class of people is really shortsighted by the city."
The McClatchy Co., The Bee's parent company, donated the park land to the city in 1995 so people working downtown could have lunch or take a break there. The public garden was incorporated in weddings and events at the McHenry Mansion across the street. Over time it became a hangout for people living on the streets.
Terry Swehla, a financial adviser who has complained about park conditions, said people working downtown used to take a sandwich and book to the park, and the new policy will allow that to happen again.
He said he used to see schoolchildren gathering in the park for lunch after touring the McHenry Mansion across the street. Under the new policy, school groups touring the mansion can include a park visit for $1 an hour.
"Anything we can do to resolve the problem and keep the park available for use by the public is great," Swehla said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.