A man stands at an intersection on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
A man stands at an intersection on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

‘A lot of increased interest, a lot of desire’: New business permit extensions aim to revitalize downtown

The city of Santa Cruz has seen a hit to downtown businesses throughout the COVID pandemic, but on Tuesday, the city council authorized a new rule making it easier for businesses to reopen or move into a vacant spot.

The What: At Tuesday’s Santa Cruz City Council meeting, councilmembers approved a new rule allowing downtown businesses that closed during the COVID-19 pandemic to reopen more easily. It also smooths over the permit process for businesses that want to take over vacant spaces downtown.

The So What: The resolution comes on top of three city-run programs started in 2021 that were designed to help small businesses, primarily based in downtown Santa Cruz, recover from the pandemic. These were:

Under the new rules, business owners now also have a longer time to reopen in the same space — up to a year — if their business closed due to the pandemic. It also speeds up the permit process for new businesses looking to occupy now-empty spaces.

Economic Development Manager Rebecca Unitt said the new rules will keep existing businesses in downtown Santa Cruz and help bring new businesses to the area.

“We’ve seen a gradual increase in new businesses wanting to get started … there’s a lot of increased interest and a lot of desire to bring something new or carry on,” she said.

Background: Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Santa Cruz’s downtown has seen businesses come and go. Unitt tallied up to 29 businesses that have shuttered in the downtown area since that time, including 11 in the past year alone.

Zach Davis, vice chair of the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz, said the city efforts have helped local businesses like his — The Penny Ice Creamery and Snap Taco — to “keep dollars local,” and encouraged the community to shop at local brick-and-mortar shops.

“With the pandemic, it really forced us to put a lens on what we can do quickly, and make sure there’s a net benefit for our community for the long term,” he said.

Hours before some 1,600 Santa Cruz County workers were set to strike, union and county officials came to a tentative...

Now, he said, the goal is to look toward the future, understanding that the effects of the pandemic will be with the community for a long time.

“For all the hardship that the pandemic has wrought, it has presented opportunities for really intense reflection and analysis,” he said. “It would be a real tragedy if we didn’t salvage what we could learn from all the suffering that’s been endured.”

Keeping downtown alive: While there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding businesses downtown, Unitt said that there is some positive news. In the past few months, five businesses have opened or expanded in the downtown area, while a sixth is about to open:

  • Elliott — 1519 Pacific Ave.
  • Santa Cruz Waffle Shop — 920 Pacific Ave.
  • Twig’s Tap House — 110 Walnut Ave. (coming soon)
  • Arslan’s Turkish Food — 113 Walnut Ave.
  • Jade — 117 Walnut Ave.
  • Love Me Two Times — 121 Walnut Ave.

The two businesses that operate as part of the Downtown Pops! program have also been successful, with Curated by the Sea (703 Front St.) and RREVV (1349 Pacific Ave.) both extending their storefronts for a few more months.

As Davis said, lowering the barriers of entry to starting or continuing a business “would help the vitality of our downtown, and should be a priority.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Justin Cummings asked if the new program could be expanded to other parts of the city, noting businesses outside of the downtown area have also faced difficulties. Unitt responded that it is a possibility, although the focus on downtown Santa Cruz was due to its higher concentration of closed businesses.

Unitt said she believes the new rule will also benefit landlords, who would be able to more easily lease empty storefronts with the streamlining permit process, as prospective businesses would be able to open quicker.