With Measure O decided, expect new downtown Santa Cruz library in 2026

A rendering of the proposed new library/mixed-use project, as seen from Cedar Street at Cathcart Street.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

Buildings take time. Though planners did work on the downtown Santa Cruz library/housing/parking structure before the Measure O vote and continued during the campaign, the new construction probably won’t open for four years. Soon, it will enter a “design” phase, followed by a 2024 groundbreaking.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Now that voters in the city of Santa Cruz have voiced their opinion on the controversial Measure O — latest election results show that about 60% of voters have rejected the ballot proposition — it should be full speed ahead for the big library project that O was attempting to derail, right?

Well, it all depends on what you mean by “speed.”

If Measure O fails, then it removes an obstacle that could have stopped altogether the construction of the three-in-one library/mixed-use project slated for downtown’s Lot 4. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bulldozers are coming quite yet.

The planning and permitting process for the project was already moving ahead throughout the election season, and continues to move forward post-election. But that process is, by definition, a slow one. As a practical matter, that means Lot 4 will look pretty much as it does now for probably more than a year.

City officials say the best estimate for construction to begin on the site is the spring of 2024. And the opening of the new library, parking garage and housing units will likely be two years beyond that, in 2026.

The downtown farmers market, which found itself as an unwanted center of attention in the whole O debate, now can proceed in its planning. Market manager Nesh Dhillon concluded negotiations with the city to work together on a new permanent facility for the market, which resulted in a memorandum of understanding this fall. That agreement includes city financing of $1.8 million to aid the market in building its new home.

If construction of the mixed-use project begins in spring 2024, that presumably would mean that the market could stay on Lot 4 in 2023. Then, it could move to Lot 7, one potential site it has identified a couple of blocks from Lot 4, or somewhere in downtown, probably temporarily.

Another possible landing spot for the farmers market would be at the site of the current library on Church Street. But the old library will have to remain open until the new one is ready, which means that site might not be ready for permanent infrastructure construction for several more years down the road, once the new library is completed.

If Measure O is defeated and the library/mixed-use project goes forward on Lot 4, then the downtown Santa Cruz farmers...

Dhillon was unavailable for comment on the aftermath of the election.

“Really, the ball is their court,” Brian Borguno, the city’s development manager for the library/mixed-use project, said of the farmers market. “If they wanted to move earlier and start the work and have permanence on Lot 7, we can move as quickly as they want to.”

The Lot 4 project — to build a new downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries system, a 124-unit affordable housing apartment building and a three-deck parking garage, all on the footprint of what is now Lot 4 — is now in what is called the “entitlement phase.” That’s the part of the process that involves approvals from the city council for development. Once those approvals are granted, the process moves into the “design phase,” which in this case is expected to happen in early 2023.

Lot 4 in downtown Santa Cruz, site of the proposed library/mixed-use project.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Funding for the project will be coming from three separate buckets, one each for the library, the housing units and the parking garage. Measure S funds, approved by the voters in 2016, are earmarked for the use of the new public library only; that is about $25.5 million. The city will also be applying for a California State Library infrastructure grant, an estimated $10 million.

City manager Matt Huffaker told Lookout via email that the affordable housing will be funded by “Central Coast Community Energy grants, conventional housing loans, tax credits and other grants.” The parking garage will be financed through municipal bonds and downtown parking fees, he said. The funding needed for the garage is about $14.5 million.

Securing funding for the various components of the project is happening concurrently with the city’s planning and entitlement process. Borguno said that it’s common for big projects to move forward in planning before funding is set: “We don’t want to secure financing prior to construction because we’d have to start paying debt service prior to having any revenue on line for the building opening. So it’s just a timing issue.”

Also, having a fully approved project that’s already been through the entitlements phase allows planners to know more precisely what they’ll need in funding, he said.

As for the fate of the dozen trees on Lot 4, Huffaker said the public will still have a say in the matter on two separate occasions, with the Parks and Recreation Commission and before the Santa Cruz City Council. If the tree removal is approved, they will likely be taken down in the spring of 2024 as part of the preparation of the site for construction.


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.