Quick Take:

In the debut of Lookout’s series The Shapers, profiles of the people who have shaped and continue to shape Santa Cruz County’s unique culture and spirit, Wallace Baine focuses on Ceil Cirillo, who not only was a driving force behind rebuilding downtown Santa Cruz but also threw her weight behind the landmark Tannery Arts Center.

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Editor’s note: “The Shapers” is an ongoing series of profiles of the people who have shaped and continue to shape Santa Cruz County’s unique culture and spirit. Got an idea for an artist, businessperson, community organizer, media personality, government official, or public figure who you think is core to Santa Cruz County, we’d love to hear about it at theshapers@lookoutlocal.com.

There is a 20-year span between the Loma Prieta earthquake and the opening of the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, and the relationship of one to the other is neither obvious nor intuitive. But if the fault lines deep inside the Forest of Nisene Marks had not dramatically shifted that day in 1989, then the ambitious housing and studio space for Santa Cruz’s artists would almost certainly have never seen the light of day in 2009.

The link between the two? That would be Ceil Cirillo, the longtime director of the redevelopment agency at the City of Santa Cruz, and one of the most consequential city employees in Santa Cruz of the past half-century. Cirillo first came to Santa Cruz from Southern California — where she led the restoration of the Pasadena Playhouse, among other projects — precisely because of Loma Prieta. A product of a big Italian family from Connecticut, she moved in her youth to Southern California, where at one time she lived in Malibu as a neighbor to Liberace.

She arrived in Santa Cruz just a couple of months after the earthquake, at the behest of then-city manager Dick Wilson, to help shepherd the city through the herculean task of rebuilding the downtown business district.

Then, many years later, it was the same Ceil Cirillo who led the no-less-miraculous transformation of the dying industrial space at the Salz Tannery, on River Street along the San Lorenzo River, into a complex of affordable housing and work space for Santa Cruz’s creative artists. In fact, it was her idea.

Thirty-four years after she arrived in the wake of the earthquake, Cirillo still lives in Santa Cruz, staying active in various community endeavors and always eager to make connections between people who she feels would benefit from that connection. In 2011, then-Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated the state’s redevelopment program, and Cirillo’s reign as one of the city’s most powerful figures came to an end. But the two pillars of her legacy remain the post-quake rebuilding of downtown and the Tannery Arts Center.

The Tannery Arts Center complex north of downtown Santa Cruz.
The Tannery Arts Center complex north of downtown Santa Cruz. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“People introduce me all the time as the person who rebuilt Santa Cruz after the earthquake,” she said from her home in the Seabright area of Santa Cruz. “I say to them, ‘That’s not my legacy. My legacy is the Tannery project.’”

She was, however, a crucial piece in the downtown’s rebuild. She was the staff person in charge to serve and assist the unwieldy but effective Vision Santa Cruz committee, a collection of downtown merchants, businesspeople, elected officials and other stakeholders charged with creating a new vision for downtown.

In the days and weeks after the earthquake, city manager Wilson knew he was facing an enormous challenge. “The downtown was rubble,” he said. He decided that the city needed to take advantage of the state’s redevelopment agencies (or RDAs), the postwar initiative that allowed cities to rebuild in the face of “urban blight.” Santa Cruz had never had an RDA, but the earthquake changed all that.

Wilson knew he had to start a new department, and he knew he needed an experienced hand to run it. He called around to friends and contacts across the state, largely other city managers in California. “I wasn’t looking for someone who needed a job,” he said. “I wanted to know who the best [redevelopment] person was.” The name he kept hearing from his contacts was Ceil Cirillo, who was working in Long Beach at the time. He cold-called her and asked her to come visit Santa Cruz. By 1990, she was in place as the new head of the RDA in Santa Cruz.

Ceil Cirillo, longtime City of Santa Cruz redevelopment director
Ceil Cirillo was a driving force in shaping post-quake Santa Cruz. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

At the time, the locals were largely traumatized by the quake, the destruction of the downtown, and the loss two weeks later of the iconic Cooper House, at Pacific Avenue and Cooper Street, where O’Neill’s surf shop now stands. The quake destroyed the old Pacific Garden Mall design, with thick foliage and a street winding through downtown mimicking a river. By 1989, there was some sentiment that the mall design was outdated and was contributing to a perception that downtown was dangerous.

Vision Santa Cruz consisted of 36 people, many of whom had little common ground, at least in normal times. Mike Rotkin had served on the city council — and would again after the quake. Though he was not on the council at the time of the quake, he was part of what was first called the “Gang of 36.”

“Basically, we wanted to rebuild downtown,” said Rotkin, “and the major decisions to be made in the end were going to come from the private sector. And you got a business community that just doesn’t trust the city council at all. They thought they were a bunch of crazy left-wingers.”

Larry Pearson, the CEO of Pacific Cookie Company, was also part of the Vision Santa Cruz committee, and served at its chair in its final years. The earthquake, he said, bridged many of the differences between people that would have proved insurmountable in normal times. “What brought us together was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “What the community faced wasn’t a matter of politics or economic outlook. Basically, it affected everyone.”

Into this situation stepped Cirillo, who had no alliances on either side, nor any sentimental attachment to the Pacific Garden Mall, the Cooper House, or any part of downtown Santa Cruz. What she did have was access to expertise, in funding resources, in design ideas, and in bureaucratic process. Cirillo’s role wasn’t to be a visionary in what the downtown could become; that part had to come from the committee. She instead served as an advisor on what was possible and practical. She made bureaucratic moves that freed up money for the rebuild. She took many of the committee members on trips to other cities in search of applicable ideas for Santa Cruz. She hired design consultants to guide the committee’s decision-making.

“She understood deals and deal-making,” said Pearson of Cirillo. “She was also the fastest person to call anyone anywhere in order to further what she was trying to accomplish.”

In the beginning, all ideas were on the table. The community was invited to weigh in on what was needed in terms of everything from street design to building heights. There were proposals to rebuild Pacific Avenue as a car-free, pedestrian-only area. Someone suggested a San Antonio-style canal. The committee initially struggled to make progress in finding a consensus. But eventually, guided by the consultants, the committee decided to replace the Dionysian nature-like environment of the Pacific Garden Mall with a more Apollonian design of straight lines and open space. Aspects of what Pacific Avenue is today — a wider sidewalk on the side of the street with the most afternoon sun, architectural “setbacks” to avoid the closed-in “canyon effect” with the taller buildings — are a result of the work Vision Santa Cruz initiated and Cirillo facilitated.

In that respect, Ceil Cirillo’s fingerprints are all over the downtown that we all know today.

“She was a player in getting people to make up their minds and to do something different than what was there before,” said Joe Hall, Cirillo’s longtime colleague at the redevelopment agency. “Her role was basically to get people to separate from the past and go on to the future.”

Santa Cruz Cinema on Pacific Avenue
The Santa Cruz Cinema stands on the Pacific Avenue site occupied pre-quake by Gottschalks department store. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Cirillo also envisioned a new multiscreen movie theater downtown, the opening of which her contemporaries credit her for. Before the earthquake, there wasn’t much happening downtown after nightfall. Cirillo believed that the downtown would benefit from an anchor movie theater to draw people downtown in the evenings. The result was the Santa Cruz Cinema 9, where the Gottschalks department store once stood.

“That was totally her idea,” said Rotkin. “At first, we’re like, ‘Do we really want a movie theater? We already have the Del Mar. We have [the Nickelodeon] over there on Lincoln Street. Do we really need one of these big ones, you know, nine screens and stuff?’ And she goes, ‘Yes, you need some energy downtown to get people to come down at night.’”

“After that movie theater opened,” said Larry Pearson of Pacific Cookie Company, “our business shot up like a rocket. It was magic.”

Later, after the quake rebuild, Mike Rotkin worked with Cirillo as mayor and a city councilmember. There were instances, in his view, in which Cirillo “overreached” in her ideas for redevelopment. But, when it came to the post-quake period, he added, “She deserves a huge amount of credit for the positive outcomes that we had,” said Rotkin. “Without her, I don’t think we would have had the success we had, and in record time.”

Of this period, Cirillo remembers, “Our main consideration was how best to keep the retail in the area active and accessible.”

A decade later, in the 2000s, Cirillo was faced with a different kind of challenge. The Salz Tannery, one of the oldest operating leather tanneries in the country, was closing and the site, near the San Lorenzo River on the opposite side of Highway 1 from downtown, was a potential site for redevelopment. But the environmental cleanup of the site that tanned hides for more than a century with soil full of poisons and solvents was daunting on its own.

In the face of widespread skepticism and even some overt and hostile opposition, Cirillo proposed redeveloping the Salz site as subsidized housing for the area’s creative artists, based on what she had seen done in the Twin Cities by a firm called Artspace in refashioning industrial spaces as housing and studio space for artists. Former mayor Emily Reilly eventually became Cirillo’s primary ally on the city council and champion of the idea that would become the Tannery Arts Center.

Ceil Cirillo, longtime City of Santa Cruz redevelopment director
Ceil Cirillo, longtime City of Santa Cruz redevelopment director. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“One day she said, ‘I want you to come to Minneapolis with me,’” said Reilly. “She said, ‘I want you to meet the architects of Artspace.’ And I did. We saw the work they were doing there, and it was extraordinary.”

Reilly caught Cirillo’s enthusiasm for the project, and worked on the city council to get the project moving, while Cirillo turned her bureaucratic prowess to the task: “I just thought it was a fantastic idea, and it was like, well, ‘Let’s say yes today and see what happens tomorrow.’”

Years later, Reilly was touring the new apartments at the Tannery Arts Center with one of the owners of the Salz Tannery property, who admitted to her his amazement that the apartments ever came to be built in the first place.

“I asked him, ‘Well, what do you think would happen here?’ And he said, ‘I thought that nothing would ever be built here. The whole thing would catch fire, and that would be the end of it.’”

Reilly said that Cirillo combined the visionary aspects of adopting workable ideas with the know-how of what it takes to get from Point A to Point B. “I just saw her as somebody who knew what might work,” she said. “You know, let’s try this. This is why this might work because of this, and we can go to this part of the government for help. She knew what the rules were. She knew what the laws were. She knew what grants were available and always had an answer.”

“That was hers,” said Joe Hall about Cirillo’s role in getting the Tannery Arts Center built. “She went out and advocated for the idea, and I think there was enough trust in the council of her from the earthquake that we undertook something most cities our size wouldn’t do.”

“I think she was one of those people whose career was exactly what she was suited for,” said former city manager Dick Wilson. “She was good at the technical aspects of her work. She knew redevelopment. She was good with the finances. And she loved people. She loved dealing with everybody, from the people she worked for at the city, as well as the developers. And she did morning, noon and night. That was her thing.”

“You should never doubt her commitment to the health of the community that she’s serving,” said Larry Pearson.

Wilson said that although Cirillo deserves credit for her big landmark achievements, she is also owed some recognition for many of the smaller things she did at RDA as well.

“Everybody knows about all the big things that she was [involved with], but it was every bit as important to her to be attentive to the little things,” he said. “She cared about where the garbage service was going to be — where were the containers going to be? How were they going to be accessed? How did their presence affect the visual appearance and the functional operation of the building or a street or an intersection? She had a real gift, and she made a real difference about so many small things that you wouldn’t pay attention to … unless they’re done badly.”

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Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...