Quick Take:

The long-debated downtown library mixed-use project got its day in front of the Santa Cruz City Council and will move forward following overwhelming support from the dais.

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The tense debate around the library mixed-use project proposed for downtown Santa Cruz ended this week after the city council majority voted to grant the permits needed for the project to break ground.

The eight-story project will alter the look and feel of downtown Santa Cruz for decades to come. Planned for Lot 4 — bounded by Cedar, Lincoln and Cathcart streets — the 273,000-square-foot development will bring a new downtown library, 124 income-restricted housing units, a three-story parking garage and room for commercial tenants and a child care facility.

More than four months after nearly 60% of voters in the city of Santa Cruz supported the project by defeating the Measure O referendum in November, the city council took up the final vote Tuesday facing one final hurdle: a gallery of residents urging councilmembers to save some of the nine heritage trees on the property. “All We Are Saying is Give Trees a Chance” and “Trees Please” signs filled the council chambers.

“The people who want to save some trees want badly to see housing go up in Santa Cruz,” said John Hall, one of the leading voices pushing for the tree rescue. “We believe in this project you can have both the housing, the library and save two heritage trees.”

The majority of the city council did not agree, and voted 5-1 in favor of the project, with Councilmember Sandy Brown voting against and Councilmember Sonja Brunner absent. The nine heritage trees on Lot 4 will be removed to make way for the new development; however, before any tenants can move in, the developer must plant 36 trees throughout downtown, 14 of which will line the walkway around the new library project. Mayor Fred Keeley also urged the developer to incorporate the wood from the existing heritage trees into furniture for the library, if possible.

One of the Lot 4 trees tagged for removal.
One of the Lot 4 trees tagged for removal. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The project’s architects claimed that, from the initial drawings, they made a “good-faith effort” to incorporate the large magnolia trees standing on the property, but said they could not find a way to do it. Brown, the lone no vote on the dais, disagreed, saying she didn’t feel there “was any real attempt to save the trees.”

“I’m torn. I came into this completely opposed to the project,” Brown said before casting her vote. “This project is very much improved. The 40% or so [who voted against the project in November] will get one-seventh of the vote tonight.”

Casey Beyer, head of the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, said the vote before the city council boiled down to two things: people and the economic vitality of Santa Cruz County.

“We’re talking about the future of Santa Cruz,” Beyer said. “It’s imperative that we move forward. We’ve been through this [debate] for eight years and now’s the time to build this beautiful project.”

Before casting her vote in support, Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson thanked the community for the dialogue.

“I think we have a great project,” Kalantari-Johnson said. “We have a better project because of the dialogue that’s happened in the community.”

The timeline for construction is unclear, but Nesh Dhillon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets, told Lookout in February that he expects the downtown farmers market currently occupying Lot 4 to remain until at least spring of 2024.

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...