Quick Take:

It might take 10 years, but the changing face of downtown Santa Cruz could offer the kind of vibrant community spaces for recreation, tourism and nightlife that have marked successful riverwalk projects in cities such as San Antonio, Austin, Chicago and Detroit.

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Santa Cruz County curls along Monterey Bay, but there are precious few places to eat by the water. In the next decade, that will change dramatically as at least 10 new restaurant spaces are added to downtown Santa Cruz, many of which will look out over a new focal waterfront: the San Lorenzo River.

The massive developments that encompass six blocks along Front Street, between Laurel Street and Soquel Avenue, will transform downtown Santa Cruz. Not only will they collectively add hundreds of housing units, many of them affordable, but the three projects planned along Front Street will be oriented toward the river, rather than having their backs to it, and bring with them a slew of new dining options. (Those numbers don’t include the as many as 1,600 additional housing units now in planning south of Laurel Street, adjoining a new Santa Cruz Warriors arena.)


Based on current plans, four of the new restaurants will include outdoor seating that will spill out onto the Santa Cruz Riverwalk, a new pedestrian-only passage that will stretch along the San Lorenzo River between the Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street bridges. Furthermore, three wide walkways, called paseos, will connect Front Street to the riverwalk and offer views of the river currently hidden by existing buildings.

Successful riverwalk projects in cities such as San Antonio, Austin, Chicago and Detroit inspired city planners. There, riverfronts have been transformed into vibrant community spaces for recreation, nightlife and scenic views and become major tourist attractions.

This plan to connect the downtown to the river isn’t new — it’s been part of a long-standing vision for downtown Santa Cruz since the Downtown Recovery Plan was created after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Now called just the Downtown Plan, this document lays out the ideal vision of what the community wanted for downtown as it was rebuilt after the earthquake, says Rebecca Unitt, economic development manager for the City of Santa Cruz. One key component: to connect downtown to the San Lorenzo River.

An artist's rendering of the Cathcart Paseo/Plaza.
An artist’s rendering of the Cathcart Paseo/Plaza, marking the approach of the San Lorenzo River from Front Street as part of the Riverfront Apartments project.

The paseos are a piece of the original plan that is finally being implemented in the new developments along Front Street. The wide, open pathways will connect the streets to the riverwalk, and, planners hope, balance out the height of the new buildings — some as high as seven stories. A paseo will also connect the new Cedar Street family apartments that are currently being built to the river along Cathcart Street.

The city hopes people will use the new riverwalk as a public space rather than solely as part of a transportation network, which is how it’s currently used. “Some people will use it to get around as sort of a connection point, but many more will go to it as a destination,” Unitt said. “You’re going to have restaurants that you can only access from the riverwalk. It’s going to be a very different experience of how people can enjoy that area.”

Who will become the tenants for these new restaurant spaces? Unitt says that while the city hasn’t had any direct inquiries yet, she and her colleagues expect to receive more as these projects get closer to coming online.

For its own developments, the city will continue to prioritize minority- and women-owned businesses through the Downtown Pops! program, which is intended to increase diversity among downtown business owners and fill vacant retail spaces. This program aims to lower the barriers of entry to businesses looking to open brick-and-mortar locations and reduce the risk for property owners to take on new tenants by providing subsidized rent for approved tenants.

This program is available for the four developer-owned projects, too, but the owners of those buildings ultimately choose the tenants. “We don’t have control over who these spaces go to,” Unitt said. “We do certainly work with the developers and want to be of assistance to help them find tenants, but ultimately, those decisions are made by them.”

The Downtown Pops! program currently has three active tenants: Curated by the Sea, Childish and a new tenant at 1349 Pacific Ave., most recently home to Downtown Pops! tenant RREVV, which closed its doors at the end of December. The city is also supporting Stripe through Downtown Pops! with its temporary popup at 1528 Pacific Ave. for the month of January while the owners launch a new store concept at their original location on Walnut Avenue.

“One of our main criteria of evaluation is trying to prioritize placing women-owned businesses and person-of-color-owned businesses into these spaces. We would take the same lens as we look at the landscape of other private spaces where we might be able to connect people or support in any way,” said Unitt. “That is something that’s definitely top of mind for us.”


The “six blocks” area of development in downtown Santa Cruz. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

How many new dining areas will be added, and when?

Since the projects are still under development, exact numbers and timelines are not available. “Nothing is set in stone,” Unitt emphasized. But based on the current plans, at least 10 dining areas — and potentially several more smaller cafés and tasting rooms — could be added in the next 10 years.

Here’s what we know so far:

The 530 Project

An artist's rendering of the 530 Front Street project as seen from the river.
An artist’s rendering of the 530 Front Street project as seen from the river. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

Moving from north to south along Front Street from Soquel Avenue, the first project is the 530 Front project, being developed by Swenson Builders. While still in its planning review phase, project manager Jessie Bristow told Lookout that the developer aims for it to be “the gateway leading to the Santa Cruz Riverwalk,” with a restaurant deck and shared space similar to Abbott Square.

Two potential restaurant spaces, each around 2,000 square feet, are included in the current plan. One will front toward the river and the other will face Front Street.

The Front Street/Riverfront Project

An artist's rendering of the Front Street/Riverfront Project as seen from the river.
An artist’s rendering of the Front Street/Riverfront Project as seen from the river. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

Next door, the Front Street/Riverfront Project will span Front Street roughly between Cathcart Street to the existing Metro station. This development is owned by several individuals operating as Santa Cruz Riverfront, LLC, and developer Owen Lawlor. It is expected to break ground this year. Here, seven commercial spaces, ranging from 500 to 4,500 square feet, are planned, including three likely intended to be restaurant spaces fronting the riverwalk path with outdoor dining. There are other spaces of less than 1,000 square feet that could be a small café, tasting room or other business, says Unitt.

If the development breaks ground this year, construction could possibly be completed within two years, for a potential 2026 opening.

The 324 Front Street: Cruz Hotel Project

Renderings of the proposed Cruz Hotel at Front and Laurel streets.
Renderings of the proposed Cruz Hotel at Front and Laurel streets. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

The third development along the riverwalk, the 324 Front Street: Cruz Hotel project, is on the corner of Front and Laurel streets. It’s owned by Lawlor and Stephen Chan, operating together as SCFS Venture, LLC. This project is still under review and developer Lawlor hasn’t submitted formal plans to the city yet, says Unitt. But current plans include a restaurant and bar, which could face the riverwalk or be located on the hotel’s proposed rooftop deck.

The Pacific Front Mixed-Use Development

A rendering of the Anton Pacific project at Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
A rendering of the Anton Pacific project at Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street in downtown Santa Cruz. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

Crossing Front Street toward Pacific Avenue, the Pacific Front Mixed-Use Development project, which will include Anton Pacific Apartments, is currently under construction. Owned by Anton Development Group, once completed, this six-story building will have more than 10,500 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor. Within that, three spaces, ranging from 3,400 to 4,600 square feet, are designated for restaurant use.

Pacific Stations South and North

Pacific Station South rendering
Pacific Station South has an estimated completion of May 2024. Credit: Via City of Santa Cruz

Next door, City of Santa Cruz-owned Pacific Station South is also under construction and is expected to be completed by 2024. At the ground level of this project, one 3,600-square-foot commercial space will wrap around the Pacific Avenue side of the building toward the Maple Paseo, a widened and improved thoroughfare where the current Maple Alley lies. This could become a restaurant, says Unitt, although it is currently classified simply as retail.

Finally, Pacific Station North Redevelopment will construct a new and improved Metro station. It is a joint project between the city and Santa Cruz Metro. While no restaurant spaces have been earmarked for this project, it’s likely that it will contain at least a café or some other small food option to serve those using Metro services.

Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...