Library Park is arguably the most underused $1.4 million public investment in Manteca.
That was the cost of the makeover and expansion more than a decade ago that was made with the intent of transforming the park into a cultural and social town square of sorts.
The investment included an interactive play feature, additional playground equipment, restrooms, a series of cultural and historical murals, restrooms, Tidewater style lighting and benches, bocce courts, a new gazebo stage complete with low-key amphitheater seating and additional grassy areas and picnic tables that is mostly beneath a canopy of stately sycamore trees.
About the same time plans were being fashioned with the goal of making Library Park a bigger daily draw to bring people downtown as well as expand its use as a community gathering place through a wide variety of weekly events, the first food trucks popped up in Manteca.
Those food trucks were a far cry from what you see today and even with how they were operated. They often were parked along East Yosemite Avenue all day long and half the night on vacant property without permission or in a gas station parking lot where they paid a nominal fee. In some cases not only were they parked next to restaurants but they did so in a manner blocking their signs. Almost every food truck allowed the area around them to be trashed with operators doing nothing to police the mess. It is what led to the city ordinance restricting food trucks to 10 minutes in one spot.
Meanwhile the improvements were made at Library Park. For a while the concept seemed to be working as the number of people frequenting the park increased.
But then the second floor efficiency apartments downtown became overrun with drug users. They openly started doing drugs at Library Park. Manteca Police — at the council’s direction — went after the root of the problem after simply arresting offenders could not stem the tide. A multi-agency team consisting of fire, building, and health inspectors along with parole agents and other branches of law enforcement went after landlords in addition to occupants that had run afoul of the law and had outstanding warrants.
Library Park was saved, at least for a while.
Then the homeless problem grew. Manteca Police have successfully kept in check most of the illicit behavior at Library Park whether it is those who have housing or don’t. There are still homeless who congregate there during the day but they are for the most part minding their own business and following the law. They tend to hang around the gazebo and near the baseball mural when they are in the park. Most of the homeless that carry their belongings with them opt to chill in Wilson Park across the way and behind the Post Office.
Still the mere presence of the homeless along with the occasional lawbreaker that may or may not be homeless has made more than a few people a bit queasy about bringing their families and children to Library Park. That has chased the farmers market as well as other longstanding endeavors such at the Children’s Art in the Park out of Library Park.
Police officers that work with the homeless daily will tell you that most try to stay low profile. That means if Library Park had heavier use on an ongoing daily basis, most of them would seek another place to hang out or simply pass the time in Wilson Park instead.
This is where a vision championed by Councilman Gary Singh comes into play.
Singh wants to see food trucks — a growing and popular trend that people say they want to be able to access on a regular basis — be able to operate in Manteca. But what he doesn’t want to see are food trucks all over town. Regardless of how well thought out the rules the city might adopt to govern food trucks, Singh knows the city — despite of what municipal management claims — has no appetite to enforce them unless someone rat finks.
It is why the recommendation from the Manteca Planning Commission to allow food trucks virtually throughout the city in commercial and industrial zones except within 150 feet of a restaurant that also would allow food trucks to stay in one place for six hours that is making its way to the council likely won’t get his support.
Instead he favors allowing food trucks at a specific location as is the growing trend in many cities.
What better place than Library Park?
There is an ideal location along the dead end section of Poplar Avenue west of the library where there is space for at least eight food trucks to park curbside along the underutilized grass promenade next to four murals.
The city could designate the area an official food truck zone while at the same time encouraging and/or organizing mini-events from time to time. The intent would be to build up food truck business in a bid to increase the use of the park. It would help realize the original goal of making Library Park a true community hub by kicking up activity enough that most of the homeless would opt to congregate elsewhere.
At the same time it would be easy to make sure food trucks are following the rules by an occasional pro-active check. Those food trucks not complying would have their privilege of parking on Poplar Avenue revoked for several months. On the same day a check is made of the food trucks legally allowed at Library Park takes place the code enforcement officer could drive Manteca and cite food trucks that are operating illegally elsewhere.
Library Park also makes the food trucks legal under county health regulations as there are city restrooms within 200 feet.
The city shouldn’t be queasy about managing food trucks given their experience with Food Truck Mania a few years back that inundated Woodward Park with over 4,000 people that showed up to access 15 food trucks on the first Sunday the event took place.
Obviously Library Park would be much more low key.
The city now has two issues — how to get Library Park to live up to its potential so that it can be a boost to downtown as well as strengthen the community fabric and at the same time encourage food trucks without creating problems that are amplified 10-times by the city’s steadfast refusal to enforce laws they adopt even if they are broken right in front of municipal staff’s eyes unless someone files a formal complaint.
The lemons that exist just need to be brought together to sweeten them up and create lemonade.
Or Manteca can continue to watch Library Park’s promise sputter and unleash food trucks the city has no intention of making sure they follow whatever rules they impose so that they can clutter Manteca’s landscape.