Riverfront Front St development
A rendering of the Riverfront mixed-use development on Front Street along the San Lorenzo River.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

Major residential, commercial riverfront development goes before Santa Cruz City Council today

The “Riverfront Project,” in the works for more than two years, is up for a final City Council vote. If approved, 175 condos, new commercial space and parking could be coming to downtown.

A proposed Santa Cruz riverfront development that would add 175 condominiums, new commercial space and a basement and ground-level parking garage could take a big step toward becoming a reality today.

After more than two years of staff reviews, environmental studies and input from residents and the Coastal Commission, the City Council is set to vote on SC Riverfront LLC’s project when it convenes this afternoon. The council will also hear final public comments on the project through a call-in hotline.

If the project is approved as originally proposed, developer Owen Lawlor’s company would demolish three existing buildings and construct three seven-story buildings on the east side of Front Street near the San Lorenzo River levee downtown.

How to watch
  • Attend today's Santa Cruz County City Council meeting virtually
    Today’s City Council meeting begins at 1 p.m., starting with a closed session. Open session begins at 2 p.m. The meeting can be watched on Zoom. It also is available on Community Television of Santa Cruz County (communitytv.org/watch) and on Comcast Channel 25.

The upper, residential portions of those buildings would have 175 condos — 53 studios, 89 one-bedroom units and 33 two-bedroom units. To satisfy affordable housing requirements, 15 of the units would be rented to very-low-income residents, and five would be rented to low-income residents.

At street level, the development would include eight commercial spaces, and more than 15,000 square feet of “new public space” in the form of outdoor pathways and plazas between buildings. The goal is to attract restaurants and retail to the area, and maximize the San Lorenzo River as an attraction.

A co-working space and fitness studio — accessible to building residents and to the public — are also part of the plans, as are 142 residential and 45 commercial parking spaces in a basement and ground-level garage. The whole project will be 188,694 square feet, the equivalent footprint of the size of 18 Abbott Squares, the popular downtown gathering spot.

Riverfront development rendering
An artist’s rending of the Riverfront Project.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

The city’s plan for downtown development dictates that the maximum project height should be 70 feet, with five floors above commercial space at most. However, in exchange for meeting the affordable housing threshold, developers are requesting an additional 11 feet — bringing the proposed project to 81 feet tall, seven stories in all.

The Coastal Commission, which reviews development proposals along the coast, has advised Santa Cruz against waiving height caps for this project, most recently in a December letter to the city.

“Ultimately, we are supportive of a project at this location that can maximize enhancement of public spaces and utility along the river and that can maximize affordable housing, but continue to have concerns about” whether the “discretionary exceptions proposed” are in fact “necessary or supportable,” the letter from commissioner Ryan Moroney said.

How to Participate
  • State your opinion about the Riverfront Project
    To speak during the public comment section of today’s meeting, call any of the following numbers. If one is busy, try the next one: 1-833-548-0282, 1-877-853-5247, 1-888-788-0099, 1-669-900-9128. Enter the meeting ID number: 965 5388 1555. When prompted for a participant ID, press #. Press *9 on your phone to “raise your hand” when the mayor calls for public comment. It will be your turn to speak when the Mayor unmutes you. You will hear an announcement that you have been unmuted. The timer will then be set to two minutes. You may hang up once you have spoken.

A separate study also identified environmental impacts that could be caused by building the project on the riverfront site, about a half-mile from Monterey Bay. Those concerns include the development’s use of energy and coastal resources, how the project could change or destroy wildlife habitats, and how it would affect local water quality, groundwater and archaeological materials. A 2018 report determined that there was “low potential for exposure of significant historic resources and/or unique archaeological sites” during construction.

Despite those potential problems, the city council can still decide to OK the development if it believes the “economic, social, and other benefits that the project will produce will render the significant effects acceptable.”

Approval by the City Council on Tuesday doesn’t mean ground will be broken immediately. That could happen “potentially as early as the end of 2021,” said Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s economic development director. But the issues flagged by the Coastal Commission and in the environmental reports could cause other delays.

If the project gets approved, “it is a major green light, but [the project] could still withstand an appeal or challenge from the public,” Lipscomb said.

The mixed-use development would match the city’s aim to create a “transitional area” between the commercial center of downtown and the San Lorenzo River. It would also add inventory to the city’s depleted housing stock.

A rendering of the 175-unit riverfront development in downtown Santa Cruz
A rendering of how the development would fit in to the existing Santa Cruz downtown landscape.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

Tuesday’s vote would include demolition permits for three buildings, including historic buildings at 418 Front St. and 428 Front St., both occupied by businesses. City Historic Preservation Commission members recommended that the city approve demolition of the buildings “with a condition that the front facades of the historic buildings are replicated on the ground floor of the new building facing Front Street,” according to a report from city staff. That means the facades would still be torn down, but their design elements incorporated into the new structure.

Riverfront project developers are considering leasing the largest ground-floor commercial space to the 418 Project, a dance studio in one of the existing buildings that would be demolished, according to the city.


11:20 AM, Jan. 12, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the breakdown of affordable units in the Riverfront Project. The development would include 15 units for very-low-income renters and five units for low-income renters.