Cesar Chavez Plaza has been called Wino Park, a festering wound and a hangout for drunks and drug dealers. Seldom, if ever, has it been called award-winning.
Now it is.
The American Planning Association announced today that the Chavez Plaza, between J and I streets and Ninth and 10th streets downtown, has been designated as one of the 10 Great Public Spaces for 2012.
Other spots that made APA's list this year include Chicago's Union Station, considered one of the country's great indoor spaces, and Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park, an impressive green space that ties that city's downtown to the waterfront.
The APA chose Chavez Plaza for its design, history, "scenic vistas," adaptability and frequent use.
"Cesar Chavez Plaza is an iconic landmark in the heart of Sacramento named for one of our country's most important civil rights leaders," Mayor Kevin Johnson is quoted as saying in a news release from the APA.
He noted that the plaza is home to musical performances, a farmers market and other community events. It also was the site of a political protest last year, when Occupy Sacramento demonstrators camped there.
Through the years, the city has worked hard to transform the park, located in the heart of the city. The plaza is positioned amid some of the city's finest buildings, such as the 1911 Beaux Arts City Hall, the 1918 Central Library, the renovated Citizen Hotel and the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria.
As such, over the years, it has been the spot for celebration and speeches. But in the past 30 years, it has also gotten a reputation as a tough place, where drunken homeless people stabbed each other, crack cocaine was sold and men sought out male teen prostitutes.
Efforts to clean up the park were not helped by the presence of a liquor store across the street that sold fortified wines to alcoholics.
These days, the plaza is home to the Friday Night Concerts in the Park, the farmers market, the Raley's Grape Escape and the Tejano Music Festival.
The APA said an early redesign of the plaza occurred in 1966 with a plan calling for realignment of walkways and then-modern lighting. Since then, other improvements have been made, including a stage and a cafe.
Another makeover occurred this year that included raised planters at the corner entrances to the plaza, new benches, landscaping improvements and turf replacement.
"Citizen engagement through planning something 75 percent of Americans agree is essential to improving people's lives has been critical to the plaza's success," said APA Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer.