The front of the Santa Cruz Public Library.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Santa Cruz

Proposed change to Santa Cruz mixed-use library plan exposes deep divides

On Monday, two groups sent a proposal to Santa Cruz City Council asking it to reevaluate spending $2.29 million on the library master architect contract. But some affordable housing advocates say the proposal will take away affordable units from downtown under the guise of more open space for Santa Cruzans.

A last-minute plea to turn a proposed affordable housing development into a park — and put the housing units elsewhere in Santa Cruz’s downtown — is exposing an increasing lack of trust between the city’s pro-growth and low-growth factions.

Specifically, pro-growth groups claim the proposal from Our Downtown is actually an attempt to stop the project from being built anywhere. Part of the suspicion relates to the involvement of Rick Longinotti, a longtime sustainability and anti-development advocate.

UPDATE: The current version of this story has additional information regarding the Santa Cruz City Council’s decision to hire a master architect for the project.

On Monday, Longinotti — co-chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, which is working with Our Downtown — released a letter to the Santa Cruz City Council imploring its members to reconsider the plan for Lot 4. Under the current plan, the parcel bounded by Lincoln, Cedar and Cathcart streets would become a parking garage and renovated library space combined with a housing development.

Longinotti said his groups — as well as others — would begin collecting signatures from voters in a bid to allow the public to decide the fate of the mixed-use project, and instead to use the Lot 4 land as a permanent home for the downtown farmers market. If successful, the initiative would be on the ballot in November 2022.

“I urge you to put off spending funds on this project until the voters have had a chance to decide,” he wrote. “This would prevent the City from expending funds unnecessarily.”

Kyle Kelley, a member of Our Downtown by way of Santa Cruz YIMBY, grew perturbed by the group’s messaging surrounding this proposal, and felt the need to speak out against Longinotti’s plan with Lookout.

“It’s been going forward for years now and this is an attempt to stop the project,” he said. “And they’re making it seem like they’re going for something else.”

While the proposal appears to advocate for the farmers market and a central downtown park for Santa Cruzans, Kelley said it ignores what’s actually needed in Santa Cruz.

“The reality is that we need housing in the community,” he said. “People need housing, there’s no denying it.”

When asked to respond to the specific claims about the groups’ larger intentions, Longinotti said he believes moving forward with the current mixed-use development plan would squander the potential for more affordable housing, and that affordable housing advocates should feel the same way.

“Why don’t we ask for 100% of what we want?” he asked. “The city has, based on an ill-conceived idea, bit off a project that is way more complex than what may be able to be delivered. It’s a failure waiting to happen.”

As approved by 70% of voters in 2016, Measure S would allow for a $67 million bond measure toward rebuilding and renovating 10 public library branches across the county by 2025. At the downtown location, the city aims to replace the 52-year-old library building with a renovated space, a 400-space parking garage, and at least 50 affordable housing units.

According to the Facilities Master Plan, the new library alone could cost between $25 million and $35 million.

In his letter, Longinotti referred to previous reports that describe downtown as already having too much parking, leading to even less space for affordable housing. John Hall, co-chair for Our Downtown who also collaborates with Longinotti, said via phone Monday that every two parking spaces proposed in the mixed-income building takes away at least one one-bedroom unit.

“What we propose is keeping the same priorities in general, but doing it all in a different way,” Hall said. “That means renovating the library in its existing location, to help keep it as part of the city center, keeping the farmers market where it is, and prioritizing affordable housing development on other city parking lots, on Lot 7 in particular.”

Lot 7 is at the corner of Front and Cathcart streets.

Emily Ham, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Business Council, met with supporters of the mixed-use development just last week in collaboration with the group Downtown Forward. She said she heard of Longinotti and company’s counterproposal for Lot 4 only on Monday when the letter was released.

“There is really fierce neighborhood and community opposition, both with this project and any affordable housing project proposed in Santa Cruz,” she said. “This anti-development opposition has to be a little crafty in how they choose to oppose these types of projects ... it’s frustrating for housing advocates and business leaders who really want to see projects like this happen.”

She further noted that the business council endorsed the original Measure S proposal for the library renovation project from its inception and has continued to support it as “exactly what we need in the city of Santa Cruz, and exactly what the state is asking us to do.”

“When it comes to housing development and development in general, it’s best practice to do mixed-use projects like this, and maximize our space,” she said. “It’s surprising how controversial it’s actually becoming.”

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council voted 6-1 to select Jayson Architecture as the master architect for the project. The group will lead the community outreach for the project and further represent the city’s interests and goals in the mixed-use development, incorporating community feedback into the plans.

According to spokesperson Elizabeth Smith of the City Manager’s Office, the proposed ballot measure would not impact the project unless it were to be on the Nov. 2022 ballot and pass.

“Unless and until City Council directs us otherwise, we will proceed on the timeline as prescribed,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the sum of the library master architect contract as $2.9 million; it is $2.29 million.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.