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Farmers market exec: Downtown redevelopment ballot initiative doesn’t represent our interests

Following last week’s announcement from Our Downtown on a proposed ballot initiative for the Santa Cruz library renovation plan, downtown farmers market director Nesh Dhillon told Lookout in an exclusive interview that the group — which purports to be an advocate for the market — has never reached out.

A mixed-use plan that includes affordable housing — part of the overall project to renovate the downtown Santa Cruz library — has been a hot-button issue since its inception, but more recently became a point of contention between the city’s pro-growth and low-growth factions.

On Sept. 13, the group Our Downtown — led by Rick Longinotti and John Hall, among others — sent a letter to the Santa Cruz City Council imploring its members to reconsider the plan for Lot 4 (the parcel bounded by Lincoln, Cedar and Cathcart streets), advocating for a permanent park for the downtown farmers market over the proposed mixed-use development. But the city council, in a 6-1 vote the following day, approved the master architect contract, declining to deviate from the original mixed-use plan.

In an exclusive interview with Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets Executive Director Nesh Dhillon this week, Lookout learned that the group has never been in communication with Our Downtown — let alone viewed it as an advocate.

“We have nothing to do with this ballot initiative,” Dhillon said. “It’s fine if people out there are ‘rah rah’ about their support, but ultimately we decide where we’ll go.”

Below are more takeaways from the conversation. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Nesh Dhillon.
(Event Santa Cruz screen grab)

Had you ever heard of Our Downtown before this initiative was released?

You hear names and all of these new groups popping up ... there’s some cross-pollination between factions, I’m guessing, but I’ve never heard of that group before, no.

This group, other groups, have strong opinions about where they would like to have the farmers market, which is interesting. I don’t even know who these guys are — I’ve never spoken to this group, they’ve never spoken to us. There are people out there advocating for the market to be somewhere, but that’s them, they’re not us.

We as an organization will figure out where we need to end up.

Has anyone from Our Downtown reached out to you regarding this proposal?

I’ve spoken to John Hall previously, mainly regarding his work for Downtown Commons. I knew the initiative was happening because he told me, but I hadn’t seen any of the language or anything — nothing’s been presented.

The Downtown Commons’ mission is to secure open space in the downtown corridor, and feel as though the best space for that is Lot 4. They still advocate for some open space for the community to convene, through special events, a permanent farmers market, however it’s designed. The farmers market is only one part of many things that should be part of the permanent space.

It’s way, way bigger than just this event that happens four to five hours a week — we’re just getting lumped with it.

It would be silly and not a good use of space to say that the only thing that can exist here is the farmers market — what about the antique fair? What about special events? What about having a central plaza or designated place with infrastructure — the farmers market is just one part of many parts.

We’ve been very forthright and transparent with these groups that we speak for ourselves, no one else speaks for us. The farmers market speaks for the farmers market. John’s heart is in the right place, but they’re just going about it with a different process.

When Measure S was first approved, what were your thoughts on how it could affect the downtown farmers market?

I never really thought too much about the measure passing and current development plans for Lot 4 — they weren’t lined up at that time. The downtown library (currently on Church Street) situation is possibly the most radical situation in that they would just build a new one.

It was never a concern because it wasn’t really discussed until two to three years ago, that they would build the new library potentially on Lot 4. That’s when we started actively with the city to look at alternative locations.

How has the experience been in working with the city on finding a new space for the market?

It’s been phenomenal — they’ve been supportive and very receptive throughout the process. Bonnie Lipscomb [the city’s director of economic development] specifically has been very proactive and supportive; when we’ve asked their team to look at things from a certain angle, they’ve always followed up. It’s been great, because we’ve learned a lot in the process, such as what our market footprint can do, how the market can be vastly improved to make it better for the public, and how we can increase the growth of the market and profitability for our farmers.

It’s a successful weekday market, but it would be significantly better if we had some infrastructure to support it. Thankfully, the city has been in lockstep with our needs.

Did you feel that the market wanted to stay on Lot 4, or did this align with the market’s goal for another location?

What’s important for us is to find a suitable permanent location so we don’t have to revisit this discussion ever again. I think that’s a reasonable request and I think it’s appropriate since the market has been around since 1990, showcasing the best of regional farming and providing a space for startup food businesses, like Companion Bakeshop and Farmhouse Culture.

Recognizing that is a strong possibility of development on Lot 4, it would only behoove us (at the market) to take a look at other locations. When things start to jell and move in a direction, we can start working on finding a replacement site, which is where we’re at right now.

We’re not tied to staying at Lot 4 — we’re looking for a location that would allow us to never have to move again. Lot 4 has never been suggested except for a group from the outside.

What are your feelings about redeveloping surface lots across the downtown, and how that relates to this project?

Well, Lot 4 is just one piece of the bigger downtown puzzle. There are a lot of surface parking lots that have been analyzed over many, many years — decades — to redevelop.

What’s important for us is to find a suitable permanent location so we don’t have to revisit this discussion ever again.

There’s always been the concern that the lot was going to be developed, with a similar process before the 2008 downturn. We’ve always been aware of it and known that, at some point, we had to seriously look at other options, so that’s never been a surprise.

It’s interesting how intertwined how the whole concept of developing the surface lots is around housing, best-used space, sustainability, higher-density, and the downtown corridor. The library is a part of it, too — the argument that the old library is beyond repair needs to be taken seriously. Is that lot going to be demolished? What are we going to do with that space?

Everyone talks about the need for more workforce-based housing, but there’s not a lot of places to build housing without creating friction and problems with neighborhoods. It makes the most sense to put housing in the downtown corridor. I really would like to see more housing opportunities for people that live here, and the downtown area seems to have the least amount of impact.

What does this ballot initiative mean on the whole?

My guess is that this ballot initiative is not just about the farmers market, but about bigger, bigger things involving the downtown corridor, the development of downtown, and housing. It’s way, way bigger than just this event that happens four to five hours a week — we’re just getting lumped with it.

There are these groups out there with a vision of what they want to see and where they want to see it, and that’s their prerogative, but that’s not us, that’s not our voice. We’ve been in a shared pursuit to find a permanent home for the market in locations that would support the market’s growth, we just haven’t figured out where that would be. Once this process starts to jell more and more and we get more serious about it, we’ll know where we’ll go.

John Hall responds

Lookout reached out to Longinotti and Hall for comment. Hall responded via email:

“Nesh and I have had a series of good discussions about Lot 4 and the Downtown Farmers Market over the years, and in the past few months I’ve let him know that a ballot initiative was being developed. He very kindly offered me an opportunity to speak with the farmers market board on Aug. 30 and we had a full discussion of the ballot initiative specifics.

We strongly believe that, when compared to any realistic alternative, the present location of the Downtown Farmers Market, Lot 4, is its best location. The market is tremendously successful there, and with better landscaping, permanent facilities, and other amenities, it can be even better. If Our Downtown, Our Future’s ballot initiative is successful, we look forward to working with the farmers market, the city, and the community to make Lot 4 a public centerpiece of downtown Santa Cruz.”

Check back with Lookout for further updates on the initiative and the plans for Lot 4.