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Santa Cruz’s Downtown footprint could become larger, with a goal of better connecting the central business district with the city’s beaches, additional parts of the San Lorenzo River, and, someday, a permanent arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors.

That was an initial vision outlined by city planners Tuesday on where new Downtown borders should be drawn — a process that the city council will oversee over the next two years.

Once those borders are defined, the Downtown expansion effort is expected to result in redevelopment and rezoning efforts within the boundary, as well as construction of more residential and mixed-use projects near transportation, parks and other public amenities.

The city has had a Downtown Plan for decades; it began as a recovery tool after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that damaged large portions of Santa Cruz County. In 2017, the council updated the plan to allow for increased building heights and residential uses in the city’s central core, among other things.

Now, with $300,000 in grant funding from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, Santa Cruz planners see an opportunity to make Downtown a better gateway to the water. “For decades, there’s been a goal to really better connect our downtown with the beach,” Planning Director Lee Butler told city council members.

Initially, planners considered several possibilities of how Downtown’s borders could grow. But when considering areas north and west of Laurel Street, both seemed unfeasible due to historical preservation regulations, Senior Planner Sarah Neuse said. The city instead turned its gaze to areas south of Laurel Street.

“We really think that this boundary makes sense,” Neuse told the city council.

During Tuesday’s meeting, several city council members and residents bristled at how planners had arrived at their preferred geographic footprint without input from the city planning commission or from the community.

Neuse said staff’s recommended area for the Downtown expansion was the clear, obvious option that would work as a starting point. Community members will have ample chance to share their opinions on where and how downtown should grow, Neuse replied.

“We’re really getting just a geographic ballpark,” which will be fine-tuned and solidified during the two-year process that will include “robust” community input, she said.

City council members voted unanimously to move ahead on the project, and to have the expansion area go before the planning commission for consideration as soon as possible.

Some major goals of the Downtown Plan and expansion include creating a cohesive corridor that connects Downtown with the city’s other jewels: the San Lorenzo River and Main Beach and Cowell’s Beach.

Creating such a link could help funnel tourist dollars concentrated in the beach area to downtown businesses and other parts of the city. Downtown is a major component of Santa Cruz’s recently approved economic development plan, a roadmap for how the city will bring in revenue and support local business over the next five years.

A patient waits to enter the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz.
A patient waits to enter the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The proposed new Downtown border would include the site of Kaiser Permanente Arena, which is now home to a temporary structure that the city is looking to transform into a “modern event venue” that could be a permanent home to the NBA G-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors.

The city and Warriors management have been in talks for years about a permanent arena, but those conversations have a renewed sense of urgency as the Warriors franchise must decide whether to stay in Santa Cruz or relocate elsewhere, according to city staff.

As the Downtown expansion effort is in the early stages, city officials didn’t discuss potential costs for the arena or other parts of expanded downtown development efforts Tuesday, other than to say they expected to hire a consultant to perform studies and oversee the process using the state grant money. The city’s goal is to select a consultant by summer.

Warriors President Chris Murphy did tell council members that he hopes a new arena could largely be funded through private investors, not public dollars, as has been the case with arena projects in some other cities.

The team’s lease on the arena was set to expire in September, but the city council approved a one-year extension on Tuesday.

Follow Isabella Cueto on: Twitter. Isabella joins the Lookout team as a government accountability reporter, building on her experience covering local government for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.Before...