John Hall on downtown library initiative: ‘We are not about blocking things’

John Hall of Our Downtown, Our Future.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the Our Downtown, Our Future group waits for approval for a voter measure for November to challenge the current new downtown library proposal, one of its leaders explains its opposition.

Opponents of the downtown Santa Cruz mixed-use library project claim that the current construction plan is a “bait and switch.” The group, now named Our Downtown, Our Future (ODOF), collected signatures calling for a vote on replacing the current plan with its own, for the November ballot. If the city certifies that petition, the matter will be on the ballot. Lookout explores the new move by the plan’s opposition, and its history, here.

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.

The ODOF plan, as outlined in the proposed initiative, claims that more affordable housing can be built on a nearby surface lot, parking Lot 7, located on Front and Cathcart streets, than on Lot 4. Its plan also states this would help to keep Lot 4 as the location for the downtown farmers market, held weekly on Wednesdays. The group has also argued for less new parking accommodation downtown.

Lookout spoke with one of ODOF’s leaders, John Hall, about the group’s opposition and its thinking.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: What would you say to the claim that the initiative measure is just another means to block the progress of this mixed-use project, let alone block the progress on affordable housing development in the city’s downtown?

John Hall: I know people say that; I don’t understand why people say that. The measure is very clear in its purposes: preserve the farmers market where it is, renovate the library where it is, and have parking elsewhere.

We believe that we have a better way to accomplish the same goals. 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.

Lookout: The planning on the library goes back to 2016, with affordable housing added to the project in 2018, and the process has included much elected official and citizen response and input over the years. What does this vote add?

Hall: The election will be full community engagement, so that would be an opportunity for voters to speak fully. People have participated in [lots of community engagement events], but I don’t think the city staff has heard the message that people want to keep the library and renovate it where it is, that they want the farmers market where it is, and that they want affordable housing built elsewhere.

John Hall of Our Downtown, Our Future.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: You have said that a goal of your group is to keep the farmer market where it is, on the lot the library project is aimed for. But the farmers market leadership itself has told Lookout that it is not represented by the group, and that it is working directly with the city to find a space. What conversations have transpired between ODOF and the downtown farmers market regarding the goal to keep the market on Lot 4?

Hall: They have said they are not taking a position on where the farmers market is tied to — they’re not tied to any given location. Frankly, there’s a narrative that has gone out by opponents of the ODOF measure that say the market doesn’t want the market there. The market has not taken a position.

[Previously, downtown farmers market executive director Nesh Dhillon told Lookout that ODOF does not represent the market or its interests, and that the market is working with the city to find a permanent solution. Dhillon was not available for an updated comment by deadline.]

We have not gone into detailed planning — at Lot 4, we think it’s premature, that it should be a community engagement process. What is clear is that we can do this, and we need a vision that says we can have a downtown public space with the farmers market.

The downtown mixed-use library project has been in motion for development since 2016, with construction of the new...

Lookout: Your group originally stated it felt the project needed more affordable housing to be viable, and that it should instead focus on building housing on other city-owned parking lots, like Lot 7. Can you expand on that?

Hall: We are looking to the long run for a solution for the city of Santa Cruz. We want affordable housing, and we want to do it in the right way. We believe that the right way is to designate city-owned parking lots to have 100% affordable housing, built on the upper levels of those lots, preserving the farmers market.

We have worked with a University of San Francisco architect to create a demonstration project, showing the option for building more housing on Lot 7 [over Lot 4].

Lookout: Has your team worked with anyone from the city of Santa Cruz directly on those plans?

Hall: No, we’re not involved in the planning process of the city; we’re not a government office. We’ve had an architect and a studio put together a demonstration project, not an actual plan, which shows that even with four or five levels of housing, we can have more units than proposed for the mixed-use library project. That’s the basis of our estimate.

[Lookout further asked Hall and other ODOF members to clarify who provided its plan. They cited a University of San Francisco professor, who assigned the task to students to create a demonstration project for Lot 7.]

Lookout: What is ODOF’s plan for building affordable housing on Lot 7 (a surface parking lot on Front and Cathcart streets in downtown)?

Hall: Well, Lot 7 is smaller than Lot 4, but you can build more affordable housing, because you’re not building a parking garage … or, you can build affordable housing on the upper levels of a ground level left for parking. It could be five to eight stories.

Lookout: Your groups have opposed building new parking garages, saying people should use alternative ways of transport. How did you get down here [to downtown Santa Cruz] today?

Hall: I’m parked right now on the street, in a spot I can be in for eight hours — I’ve never had a problem with parking downtown.

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