Organizers of a petition to give voters the power to approve tall buildings in the city of Santa Cruz say they have gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the March primary ballot. The initiative from the group known as Housing for People would require voter approval for proposed new developments that exceed current zoning limits and would enforce affordable housing requirements in large multi-family projects. The initiative comes in response to a downtown expansion plan that sparked controversy with its proposal for 12-story buildings.
Should tall developments first be approved by voters? Should a quarter of new units in large multifamily developments be income-restricted? An upstart political group has been petitioning Santa Cruz residents with these questions since June and, according to organizers, they have received enough signatures to put the questions on the March primary ballot.
Frank Barron and Keresha Durham, leaders of the group Housing for People, told Lookout they’ve collected more than the required 3,690 names to qualify for the ballot, and are now working to pad the numbers with 600 to 800 more signatures before handing the petition in to the city clerk by the Monday, Oct. 9, deadline. If the city clerk certifies that enough registered city of Santa Cruz voters have signed the petition, the questions will go on the March 5 primary ballot.
“We’re going to have more than enough signatures,” said Durham, who said she has spent every day after work, from 5 p.m. to dark, knocking on doors and garnering support for the ballot initiative. Durham said the group has had “200 volunteers” working to collect signatures.
If the initiative qualifies for the ballot and voters support it, any development proposal that seeks to build taller than what is allowed by current zoning would first require the approval of voters in an election; a city council proposal to increase height limits would also require approval by voters. Developers proposing multifamily projects with 30 or more units would also need to set aside 25% of those units as income-restricted.
Although the initiative carries citywide implications, Housing for People organizers said the downtown expansion plan was the impetus. That plan, which envisions a redevelopment of the south of Laurel Street neighborhood to bring downtown closer to the beach, once mulled 15-to-17-story residential buildings with up to 1,800 units surrounding a new permanent arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors basketball team. In January, Mayor Fred Keeley led an effort to cap the height at 12 stories and the units at 1,600, but for many it still appears too much.
Barron, a retired urban planner for the city and county, said many people he’s spoken to while gathering signatures seem surprised to hear about the development proposal.
“They’re just not aware of what’s going on, and a lot of people are shocked that that is what is being proposed,” Barron said. “I think city leaders are seeing that and are realizing there is this groundswell and opposition to the go-go-go mentality.”
Citizen initiatives are typically given 180 days, or about six months, to collect signatures, but Housing for People got a late start, petitioning its first voters in June. If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, Housing for People will have gathered enough support in about only four months. Durham said the progress on the six-story residential mixed-use progress on the corner of Laurel Street and Pacific Avenue helped their campaign.
“A lot of times we hear from people who are mortified by the height and the prison-block aesthetic of that building,” said Durham, who said it was easy to point to the development and ask voters whether they’d want a say before buildings go twice as tall. “We’ve had a lot of support. Last week I got a check for $2,000 from a supporter in town.”
Councilmember Scott Newsome, whose district encompasses the south of Laurel area, said he supports the vision of 12-story buildings, a new Warriors arena and 1,600 new units residential in the area; however, he declined to take a firm position on the petition initiative, or say whether he would use his office as a political leader to try to defeat it or help it pass.
“I understand the concerns people have about height and affordability, and there are tradeoffs that can result in a lot less housing being built,” Newsome said. “If the expansion plan does not go through, we would lose the opportunity for housing. Ultimately, this is going to be decided by the voters, and I see my role as talking to voters and educating them on the choices they can make. I will just leave it at that.”
Keeley did not immediately return calls for comment. Chris Murphy, president of the Santa Cruz Warriors, said it is “too early to say’’ whether these proposed restrictions on the development could land an existential blow to the current arena and downtown expansion plans. About the petition, he said “everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
“The Warriors are committed to making a long-term home in Santa Cruz, we want that to happen,” Murphy told Lookout on Friday. “It’s definitely still the goal and still a reality. We’re working with the city and private sector to figure out how we can make a permanent home for the Warriors in downtown.”
Among the major questions hanging over the potential ballot measure is how it would affect the financial reality of a plan to expand downtown with a new Warriors arena. The city is moving forward with developing a land-use plan and rezonings that would allow for the arena, 12-story residential buildings, and a reorganization of streets and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure. City planning director Lee Butler told Lookout the city will host a community meeting in “late October or early November” on the downtown proposal. He said he expects staff to release a plan for public comments “by early next year” followed by votes from the planning commission and city council, and expects that to come in front of the planning commission and, eventually, the California Coastal Commission.
Last month, the city council unanimously approved a guaranteed two-year lease extension with the Warriors for use of the existing Kaiser Permanente Arena. In its analysis of the lease extension, city staff emphasized that the franchise has “received considerable interest in relocating the Santa Cruz Warriors to a more permanent home elsewhere in the Bay Area.”
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