Retired environmental scientist Susan Monheit, retired city and county planner Frank Barron and activist Keresha Durham.
Retired environmental scientist Susan Monheit, retired city and county planner Frank Barron and climate activist Keresha Durham on the corner of Laurel Street and Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Urban density is coming to downtown Santa Cruz. This group wants to stop the city from getting taller.

Santa Cruz’s downtown expansion plan is aimed for the lots that currently host Kaiser Permanente Arena, Ace Hardware and Firefly Coffee House. The city has capped building heights in the area at 12 stories. That is still too tall for some. A group called Housing for People is circulating a petition that asks residents whether they want to be able to vote on projects that propose to reach taller than existing height limits on local land.

Seated at a corner booth inside the sunlit Munch cafe in downtown Santa Cruz, against a noon backdrop of construction crews working the final stages of the six-story mixed-use project at Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street, three local residents lay out their plan to thwart one of the city’s most transformational development projects.

“Our initiative is not about the downtown expansion project, at all, actually,” said Susan Monheit, a retired environmental scientist with the State Water Resources Control Board. “It prompted us to write the initiative, yes, but it’s not what the initiative is about.”

Monheit, along with Frank Barron, a retired city and county planner, and climate activist Keresha Durham, is organizing a grassroots effort circulating a petition that takes aim primarily at the city’s vision to overhaul the south of Laurel Street neighborhood into a modern, dense extension of downtown Santa Cruz, with 12-story mixed-use buildings, 1,600 housing units and a new, permanent Santa Cruz Warriors arena.

Known formally as the Downtown Plan Expansion, it is aimed for the lots that currently host Kaiser Permanente Arena, Ace Hardware and Firefly Coffee House. Although the project remains in the planning stages, it has had a polarizing arc. The original proposal included 15- and 17-story buildings for the development, which sent big-city shivers down the spines of many beach-town locals; however, upon his election, Mayor Fred Keeley led a city council effort to ease those anxieties and cap the project’s building heights at 12 stories.

Twelve stories, apparently, is still too tall for some. Working together as Housing for People, Barron, Monheit and Durham are circulating a petition that asks residents whether they want to be able to vote on projects that propose to reach taller than existing height limits on local land, as well as if they think city rules should increase the portion of affordable housing required in multifamily developments from 20 to 25%.

If the petition gets about 3,700 verified signatures from locally registered voters by Oct. 9, the questions will go in front of voters on the March 5, 2024, primary ballot. Barron said they already have 2,000 signatures.

If voters approve the initiative, two new laws will dictate new development within Santa Cruz: Developers will need to reserve a quarter of the units in new multifamily developments as income-restricted; and if a project proposes buildings taller than what existing zoning allows, the city will have to call an election and a majority of voters will need to approve the proposed building height — potentially crippling the ability of developers to build up. Building height, like electing city council members and approving new taxes, will become the realm of direct democracy.

“What it does is it keeps the city from upzoning neighborhoods without citizen participation,” Monheit said. “If you’re working and you’re not following city council meetings, then, all of the sudden, you’re seeing these buildings that are coming up.”

Locally, citizen governing has worked as an uneven tool for voters to take policy and taxes into their own hands. Last year, direct democracy helped propel visions for light rail and a library mixed-use project, and bury a proposal for an empty homes tax. Only a few years earlier, voters in Santa Cruz recalled two councilmembers and killed a rent-control proposal. Right now, a different local group is working to put a proposal on the November 2024 ballot to see if voters would support an additional tax to finance affordable housing within the city of Santa Cruz.

The city is doing its part to keep the public involved in its plan for the new downtown expansion. In a citywide survey that wrapped up just Friday, residents were given an opportunity to weigh in on which benefits of the development were most important to them, and chart their support for details such as cyclist and pedestrian improvements, turning Spruce Street into a public plaza, ground-floor building features, and amenities in the south of Laurel area. The city will host another public workshop on the plan at a yet-unscheduled date in October.

However, the survey did not seek any opinions on height, which is the crux of the initiative Housing for People has been working on for the past year. Although Keeley capped the height of the buildings in the Downtown Plan Expansion at 12 stories, Barron said it’s still too tall for Santa Cruz. He turned to the window at his back and pointed to the six-story project at Pacific and Laurel.

“So, imagine twice that tall,” Barron said.

“And we don’t know if it’s going to be only twice because the plan doesn’t specify height,” Durham said. “It can be 15 feet per story.”

Retired city and county planner Frank Barron.
Retired city and county planner Frank Barron demonstrates how much taller buildings can be under the city’s downtown expansion plan.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The south of Laurel downtown expansion plan is the vision for an in-demand city that cannot grow out (due to tight environmental regulations) to grow up instead. The 1,600 units proposed in the project would usher in significant housing supply during a time when Santa Cruz’s housing affordability crisis has reached new heights. Earlier this year, the Santa Cruz-Watsonville metropolitan statistical area edged out San Francisco as the least affordable metro (a measurement of incomes against housing costs) across the United States.

Yet, another local debate is helping to drive the initiative. The surge in housing demand and, subsequently, housing prices in recent years has led many to point to the old economic axiom of supply and demand. High demand for a commodity without enough supply raises the value of the commodity. By that logic, more supply is the answer, and urban planners, developers and officials have gotten behind this school of thought.

Barron, Monheit and Durham say they are not against density; however, they believe Santa Cruz is so desirable a destination that it operates outside the traditional supply-and-demand model — essentially, they think there is no ceiling for housing demand here, especially for a scenic, temperate city abutting one of the world’s leading economic engines in Silicon Valley.

“The supply-and-demand arguments do not work in a destination location like Santa Cruz where there will always be unlimited demand,” Monheit said.

“Everywhere in the city we’re knocking on second homes, occupied by people who are not registered to vote locally,” Durham said. “That’s what I predict if they go up, these may be second homes with — ”

“Ocean views,” Monheit jumped in.

Susan Monheit, Frank Barron and Keresha Durham discuss their petition in downtown Santa Cruz.
Retired environmental scientist Susan Monheit, retired city and county planner Frank Barron, and climate activist Keresha Durham explaining their petition to propose a ballot initiative to Santa Cruz resident Paolo Hutchinson-Trujillo.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I asked them why, among the various features of the downtown plan and urban design generally, building height for many people correlates to the soul of a city like Santa Cruz.

“I don’t know that it’s the soul of Santa Cruz, it’s that increasing height so much that — I mean, eventually, 20 to 30 years from now, maybe that’s what the people will want,” Barron said. “We’re not Miami Beach or downtown San Francisco or San Jose.”

Monheit said she’s worried about the slippery slope of introducing tall buildings to a place like downtown Santa Cruz. Once buildings begin reaching a certain height, when will it stop?

“I have a lot of trepidation and dread about this part of town becoming like the Financial District in San Francisco, that we’re going to build something that nobody wants to be in,” Monheit told me. “That they’re not building that destination location that people want to come to.”

Housing for People has until Oct. 9 to continue door knocking and secure 3,700 verified signatures from local voters if it wants to qualify the initiative for the March 2024 primary.

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