A sample rendering of what the new downtown Santa Cruz library could look like.
A sample rendering of what the new downtown Santa Cruz library could look like. The design of the mixed-use project will be finalized by 2022, according to a recent project timeline.
(Via City of Santa Cruz; rendering by Group 4 Architecture, Research + Planning, Inc.)
Civic Life

Yay or nay: How some Santa Cruz business owners view the mixed-use library project

A mixed-use project under development review by the Santa Cruz City Council has become increasingly controversial. Lookout spoke to business owners in the downtown area to gauge their thoughts on the proposal for a new library building and affordable housing complex.

A mixed-use project that’s now the subject of a potential ballot initiative has become the lightning rod in the fight over the soul of downtown Santa Cruz. On paper, the opposing plans have some similarities — but there has been a demonstrated lack of trust among the factions, making it difficult, business owners say, as to which they should support.

Below, Lookout looks to explain the different opinions and plans, and what business owners feel about the project.

The history of Lot 4

The site of the city-approved project at the heart of the controversy — sandwiched between Cedar, Lincoln and Cathcart streets — sits on the Lot 4 parking area.

Stemming from the 2016 voter-approved passage of Measure S — which funded libraries countywide — the Library Mixed Use Project has been in development for nearly five years. Though it has gone through many iterations over this time, the latest city council-approved version includes:

  • A new downtown library building, replacing the current location on Church Street
  • A minimum of 107 units of 100% very-low-income affordable housing
  • A maximum of 400 parking spaces, replacing those currently on Lot 4

Currently, the city is conducting focus groups and workshops with community members on the site concepts and library design, and will reconvene for a council presentation in December.

Yet as the project has moved forward — with city council selecting a lead architecture firm on Sept. 14 — community groups like Our Downtown, Our Future and Don’t Bury the Library have raised objections.

The former group is in the initial stages of organizing a ballot initiative which, if it receives signatures from at least 10% of registered voters — amounting to 4,000 individuals — would go on the November 2022 ballot.

But there is also significant support for the project from other community groups. One, called Downtown Forward, lists hundreds of people and businesses on its website who want the mixed-use development.

“We support a holistic vision for the future of our downtown that includes additional housing, diversified local business, lively civic and cultural facilities, multiple transportation options, and inviting public spaces,” the group states on its website.

What do the downtown businesses generally think about the project?

Lookout reached out to downtown businesses for their thoughts on the project. Of the dozen who responded, opinions varied widely. A third said they supported the city-approved project, a third said they did not like it, and a third said they needed more information.

Joe Ferrera, owner of Atlantis Fantasyworld on Cedar Street and vice-chair of the Downtown Commission, says the development will get more people to come downtown, noting how difficult it was following the 1989 earthquake.

“We need to understand that the kinds of things that bring people downtown should be a balance — I believe the mixed-use library project serves many purposes,” he said. “Even if everyone is driving electric cars, if we’re going to have a pliable downtown, we need to have an opportunity for people to park those cars.”

Yunus Arslan, owner of Arslan’s Turkish Street Food on Walnut Avenue, is also in favor of the project. He said he’s had trouble finding parking in the downtown area and constantly hears customers complaining about it, especially on the weekends.

“I think it’s necessary,” he said. “The population is growing, and the city is growing, I think it will bring more business to downtown for sure.”

He added that with the expansion of outdoor dining the need to provide different parking options is significant.

But Enda Brennan — an attorney who’s worked in the downtown area since 1988 and currently works as a downtown commissioner for the city — isn’t so sure. He thinks moving the library could lead to more harm than good.

“Change is inevitable, but it needs to be well thought out and planned. To me, the downtown library is where it is for an important reason,” he said.

Paul Cocking, owner of Gabriella Cafe on Cedar Street, said Lot 4 should be used as an event space for the community instead of the mixed-used project.

“In 25 years, I’ve had very few people ever say that we had trouble finding a place to park,” he said. “I mean, if you want to talk about parking, go to San Francisco and you’ll pay $30 to park all day, if you’re lucky to find a garage.”

A preliminary rendering of the children's section of the new downtown library in Santa Cruz.
A preliminary rendering of the children’s section of the new downtown library in Santa Cruz.
(Provided by City of Santa Cruz)

What opponents to the project propose

Our Downtown, Our Future — led by Rick Longinotti — announced an alternative plan in September. Its proposal aims to turn Lot 4 into a permanent location for the Downtown Farmers Market, put affordable housing units on Lot 7 — which sits at Front and Cathcart streets — and rehab the library in its current location.

In the time since, the group has filed paperwork with the city attorney stating its intent to gather signatures for the ballot initiative; should it receive the signatures of 10% of the city’s registered voters within a six-month period, the initiative would go on the November 2022 ballot.

Longinotti said his group is open to an affordable housing development on Lot 4, but wants the lot to be the primary location for the farmers market — something the market’s director has not advocated.

“I think, importantly, we are always looking for a win-win — a beautiful new library, a public event space, and affordable housing,” Longinotti said. “The potential for negotiation is still there, because at any point, we can negotiate with the city to meet everyone’s needs — there’s been no feelers put out by the city as showing any interest in that.”

Parking is only one part of the plan

For Tim Willoughby, a representative for the group Downtown Forward and chair of Affordable Housing Now, the other aspects of the project need to be taken into consideration instead of stifled by concerns over parking.

“Anybody who spends 30 minutes examining the differences between the plans sees a tremendous difference — it’s less expensive to build something new than fix something old,” he said, addressing the issues of asbestos and seismic upgrades needed for the current 52-year-old library. “If we can build the library with a garage and an affordable housing development, you get more for your money.”

Willoughby believes groups like Our Downtown have slowed the process down, which is “so incredibly arrogant and distasteful.”

Zach Davis, co-owner of The Penny Ice Creamery and Snap Taco, has worked on the Downtown Commission for nine years and worked closely with the farmers market that’s currently housed on Lot 4. Since Our Downtown first released its intent to gather signatures, Davis has been perplexed as to what its goals really are.

“The message seems to be we want to keep Lot 4 as a parking lot — that’s really it,” he said. “I don’t think their message aligns with the long-term interests of the market; [farmers market leaders] want a permanent dedicated space with supported infrastructure ... I don’t think a concrete and actionable plan has been offered by this group.”

Further, Davis said, moving forward with the mixed-use library project would “create more vitality that only benefits our downtown businesses.”

“I understand that change can be unsettling, and people want things to stay the way they are or were,” he said. “But there’s a reason why I live in Santa Cruz and it has to do with the city and community character — I think this project is keeping with that spirit.”

But for Longinotti and his group, the problem is that the current city plan is not the best way to spend a limited amount of money.

“There’s a negligence that, in my opinion, is very poor governance,” he said. “It doesn’t do justice to what city council needs to do, which is have all of the information before them before they make a decision.”