A new challenge to Santa Cruz’s downtown mixed-use library building

One of the latest renderings of the downtown mixed-use library project
One of the latest renderings of the downtown mixed-use library project, provided by the City of Santa Cruz and Jayson Architects.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

The downtown mixed-use library project has been in motion for development since 2016, with construction of the new library planned to begin as early as next summer. Opponents — forming the group Our Downtown, Our Future — now aim to put a ballot measure before city voters this fall to block it. Lookout tackles the questions voters will likely consider.

After nearly six years of planning, it looked as though Santa Cruz’s future downtown library replacement had almost passed its final hurdle after some controversy and could begin construction as early as summer 2023. Now, though, the project faces a new obstacle — a citizen initiative that will likely be on the November ballot for city voters.

Last Tuesday, the group Our Downtown, Our Future (ODOF) submitted 5,051 signatures for its ballot proposal, seeking to block the planned construction of the new library on the downtown block bordered by Cathcart, Lincoln and Cedar streets. County clerk Tricia Webber is now in the process of certifying the validity of those signatures. To qualify for the November ballot, ODOF needs at least 3,848 valid signatures; Webber has 30 working days to verify the signatures.

The measure asks voters to stop the building of a new, mixed-use library project, as planned. If passed, the initiative would reverse the long-planned project and require the city to renovate the downtown branch library in its present location on Church Street. The measure would also reallocate 2016 Measure S bond money ($67 million approved in a countywide vote, with $25.5 million toward the downtown library) to renovations in the library’s current location, rather than building the new library envisioned in that Measure S subsequent planning.

The current plan for the mixed-use library project would be built on Lot 4, bordered by Cathcart, Cedar and Lincoln streets, and would include:

  • 124 units of 100% affordable housing.
  • 310 parking spaces.
  • A new library with 40,000 square feet of space (including a 5,000-square-foot roof deck).
  • A child care facility.

City-owned Lot 4 currently serves as a surface parking lot and is used weekly on Wednesdays for the downtown farmers market.

ODOF group co-chair John Hall told Lookout that the group’s mission primarily gives voters the chance to decide on how the Measure S bonds are used downtown: “It was only after Measure S passed that the mixed-use project was proposed, which people call a bait and switch.” Lookout talked more with Hall about the group’s opposition; find the Q&A here.

“We believe that we have a better way to accomplish the same goals,” said Hall. “We believe that Lot 4 is a better place for the farmers market and a community commons; we can renovate the library and provide space for a future annex, and can build affordable housing elsewhere. We are not about blocking things, but providing a better future for our community.”

As the Our Downtown, Our Future group waits for approval for a voter measure for November to challenge the current new...

The current plan for the new library and mixed-use development has gained widespread support as it has seen numerous plans and reviews over the past six years. Elected city leaders and administrators who support the construction point to extensive multiyear work with planners and developers to survey the best way to use the Measure S funds downtown. That project creates a mixed-use structure with multiple community functions, and is part of a larger plan as the city aims to meet the multiple challenges of housing need and affordability and parking.

As ODOF filed its signatures last week, Martín Gómez, vice president of the Friends of Santa Cruz Public Libraries, announced the launch of Santa Cruz for Real Solutions, a committee formed to speak out against what it considers misleading ODOF plans.

“I’m very disappointed that folks did a hit-and-run to try and kill the project,” he said. “The messages they’ve been sending are a problem in search of a solution … they’ve been looking to see what sticks up on the wall with a volley of misleading statements.”

Zach Davis, former member of the Downtown Commission, downtown business owner and vendor at the farmers market, said the ODOF messaging is, in short, confusing.

“Their position continues to shift and depends on the questions being asked, minute to minute,” he said. “There’s a stated desire and, I think this sort of implied or implicit threat, that we will lose the downtown farmers market without this ballot initiative … it continues to be misrepresented.”

As proponents and opponents of the project await the measure’s confirmation for the November ballot, Lookout begins to address some of the larger questions about the project.

Martín Gómez and Zach Davis (right) at Lot 4 in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How long has the library building process been?

County voters originally approved Measure S in June 2016 by a 70% vote, with $67 million for modernizing, upgrading and repairing local libraries. In December 2016, the Santa Cruz City Council directed city staff to determine a best path forward for the downtown library, including developing a new permanent site for the farmers market and parking in a potential project. The measure has already funded renovation and new library construction throughout the county, including one in Capitola.

In the time since, the project has added affordable housing units, reduced its planned parking spaces, and moved the location of the library from the ground floor to above the parking garage. Over the past few years, it’s been approved by a 12-month council subcommittee process, the Downtown Library Advisory Committee and the Santa Cruz City Council.

The city’s economic development department most recently presented updates to the city council on April 21, with the project currently including the 124 units of 100% affordable housing, 310 parking spaces, new library with 40,000 square feet of space (including a 5,000-square-foot roof deck) and a child care facility.

What is ODOF proposing with its ballot measure? What has the group estimated in terms of timeline or costs?

The group proposes three main items in its measure:

  1. Renovate the downtown library in its current location on Church Street with the Measure S funds (amounting to $25.5 million).
  2. Build affordable housing on Lot 7 (on Front and Cathcart streets) instead of the proposed Lot 4 (bordered by Cathcart, Cedar and Lincoln streets).
  3. Create permanent infrastructure and a city commons on Lot 4 for a permanent home for the downtown farmers market.

The group, launched in September 2021, is the latest iteration of opponents to siting the library on Lot 4. Some of its leaders — Hall and Rick Longinotti — are also active leaders of another local group, the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. A third group, called Don’t Bury the Library, also issued concerns about the mixed-used project, which in a 2019 proposal would have built the new library under the floors of parking. That proposal was later dropped.

In discussing its plan proposal, ODOF co-chair Hall couldn’t provide a funding estimate or timeline for its proposal.

Hall said the city could appropriate capital improvements funds for a permanent farmers market infrastructure on Lot 4, and reappropriate efforts to fund affordable housing on Lot 4 toward Lot 7. But Hall also acknowledged that ODOF is not a planning agency: “We would love to roll up our sleeves and work on this … I would love to see the city proceed with the development of affordable housing on Lot 7 right now.”

He further said there was no timeline to the group’s proposed plans: “We’re not a city government agency, we are a campaign organization. … We have great confidence that city staff, once given that direction, can proceed.”

An updated rendering of the downtown mixed-use library project
An updated rendering of the downtown mixed-use library project.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Who are the major players and committees on each side of the issue?

By ODOF’s estimate, 60-70 volunteers worked to gather signatures over the past five months.

The project in its current form was approved by the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously earlier this year. In addition, the nongovernmental groups favoring the project include:

  • Carpenters Union Local 505
  • Downtown Association
  • Downtown Library Advisory Committee
  • Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries
  • Library Advisory Committee
  • Santa Cruz Community Health Centers
  • Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce
  • Santa Cruz County Business Council
  • Santa Cruz Genealogical Society

Longtime Santa Cruz political voices in support of the project include former mayors Don Lane and Cynthia Mathews. City Councilmember Justin Cummings, who originally opposed the proposal, recently wrote of his support for the project, noting an increase in affordable housing and a decrease in parking. Yet, he also noted that if the item goes to the ballot, it will be a community decision.

“This is not a perfect scenario, and I don’t think that this project meets the needs of all community members, but it includes community benefits that everyone cares about,” Cummings said.

How has the city addressed community concerns since the project’s inception?

ODOF claims the city hasn’t sufficiently planned for the mixed-use library project, with Hall saying the project doesn’t align with Measure S: “I don’t know whether the city staff has listened enough to the public or to city council for that matter.”

A number of people who have worked through the project vehemently disagree — and, in fact, point to specific project changes that stemmed from community feedback. For example, the original project intended to create only a new library and parking structure with 600 parking spaces. Affordable housing was added later, and those units increased as the city decreased parking from 600 spaces to the current 310.

Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s director of economic development, told Lookout the plans have differed dramatically from what was originally proposed, due in large part to feedback in recent years from people like Hall and Longinotti.

“I would even say that some of their concerns really helped us sort out those decisions internally, to actually reduce the overall number of parking spaces,” she said. “They may still not be happy with the current direction that we’re moving forward with the project, but I will say that their voices have been heard.”

Further, by building a mixed-use project, Lipscomb said the various costs could be shared among each project piece, including site prep, surveying and permitting. The city is also waiting to hear about a potential $10 million grant from the state library system that would be project-specific — something that would be lost if the project didn’t move forward due to ODOF’s measure.

“I think, for some of them, the project not going forward is their ultimate outcome,” she said.

A map of downtown Santa Cruz with development projects highlighted
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

How is the farmers market involved, if at all?

ODOF claims in its messaging that it wants to “save” the farmers market in its current location — but the farmers market hasn’t expressed a strong desire to stay on Lot 4.

In September, downtown farmers market executive director Nesh Dhillon told Lookout: “There are people out there advocating for the market to be somewhere, but that’s them, they’re not us. We as an organization will figure out where we need to end up.”

Dhillon was unavailable for an updated comment.

According to Lipscomb, the market board and the city have been in direct communication since late summer 2017, and continue to discuss the best locations for the market. Two options: Lot 7 and — perhaps later — the current site of the downtown library.

Currently, the city has $1.2 million dedicated toward building permanent infrastructure for the farmers market, and should receive an additional $500,000 in funding this year.

Why is this a city, and not a county, vote?

The measure is proposed for the city of Santa Cruz November ballot. That’s because it’s a city building initiative, even though funding is coming from countywide-approved Measure S.

“Because the ballot initiative focuses on numerous entities and locations in the city, it is a city initiative,” said city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith, noting the additional aspects of city parking spaces, affordable housing units and the downtown farmers market.

Additionally, Webber told Lookout, the group originally submitted its ballot measure proposal to change the city’s general plan, not the county plan.