Quick Take:

The project at the center of ballot proposition Measure O in Santa Cruz’s November election awaits a recommendation from the city’s planning commission and a possible final approval by the city council on March 14.

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Nearly four months after almost 60% of voters in the city of Santa Cruz backed a downtown mixed-use library project in a fateful election over Measure O, the eight-story development is poised to move forward, with important votes at the city’s planning commission this week and a possible final city council approval March 14.

As with any project of this magnitude, this megadevelopment promises to change the look and feel of downtown Santa Cruz for generations to come. What distinguishes this library/parking garage/apartment building/commercial space/child care facility from the other active large-scale developments is just how motivated and quantifiable the opposition was. The question of the development was placed on the November ballot, and just over 40% of Santa Cruz voters said they didn’t want to see this project in their city.

Thursday’s planning commission meeting and the March 14 city council meeting will mark the final checkpoints in the city’s decision-making process over the development, and offer the final opportunities for those opposed to make their case — unless lawsuits are filed, which always looms as a possibility in any contentious land-use battle.

The project has changed since Santa Cruzans first saw the application last year, but much remains the same. It will still be a multifaceted, eight-story development located on Lot 4 — bounded by Cedar, Lincoln and Cathcart streets — with 124 income-restricted housing units stretching across five stories. The units are divided into a mix of sizes: 13 studios, 48 one-bedroom units, 32 two-bedroom units and 31 three-bedroom units. The proposed three-story parking garage remains, as does the new three-story library, which will have two floors and elevated ceilings. The development will also have space for commercial tenants and a child care facility.

However, the size of the overall project has shrunk from 308,000 square feet to 273,000, and the number of parking spots in the garage has decreased from a proposed maximum of 340 to 243.

An approved design for the downtown mixed-use facility.
An approved design for the downtown mixed-use facility. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

The planning commission will be voting on whether to recommend that the city council greenlight the permits needed for the project’s design — allowing it to, among other things, reach eight stories, or roughly 90 feet, in a zone with a 35-foot building height maximum — as well as demolish the parking lot and the lone commercial structure on the lot, Toadal Fitness.

Although the city is seeking a demolition permit for Toadal Fitness, the project’s staff report prepared ahead of the Thursday meeting says the city has still not finalized negotiations with the owners of Toadal Fitness to purchase the property. The report says the negotiations are active and involve purchasing Toadal Fitness and then offering the gym a spot as a commercial tenant in the new development.

According to the report, the staff expects an outcome “in the next several weeks,” but did not say where the negotiations stood.

Thursday’s meeting also offers the first major litmus test of the new-look City of Santa Cruz Planning Commission.

Until the November election, progressives held a 4-3 majority on the planning commission, which put them at odds with the more moderate city council and staff. In practice, that meant the commission often advocated for affordability requirements in new developments that city staff and the city council criticized as unrealistic and effectively stalling much-needed housing developments.

That 4-3 planning commission majority stood as a relic from the brief window in 2018 when the progressives held away on the city council. However, an unpopular rent control measure and a successful recall campaign of, two progressive council members, led by local political organizations Santa Cruz United and Santa Cruz Together, flipped the fate of the city council’s politics back to a more moderate and what some would call a pragmatic view of housing development that prioritized working with developers to get projects built.

The progressive camp hasn’t yet recovered and stands at a significant disadvantage in Santa Cruz’s two most impactful decision-making bodies. Moderates hold a 6-1 majority on the city council. The planning commission’s progressive majority ended in January this year, after new mayor Fred Keeley and reelected councilmember Renée Golder appointed Michael Polhamus, son of Santa Cruz United backer Carol Polhamus, and Timerie Gordon, a designer and wife of architect and former planning commissioner Christian Nielsen. The moderates now hold a 5-2 majority on the planning commission.

The progressives came out split on support for the library project in November; however, those in Keeley and Golder’s camps displayed more unanimity in favoring the development. How the commissioners discuss the project Thursday will likely give Santa Cruzans a taste for the politics of development from their new planning commission majority.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of a political organization that helped lead a 2019 recall of two Santa Cruz city councilmembers. Carol Polhamus was a member of the steering committee of Santa Cruz United.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...