Design matters in affordable housing

Former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin.

Mike Rotkin, five-time mayor of Santa Cruz, says the city needs more affordable housing, but we also must be careful what we build. Design, including open space and access to the San Lorenzo River, are key, he says. He cautions against cost-cutting, which could undermine increasingly strong public support for more affordable units.

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No matter your politics, everyone agrees on one simple fact: The lack of affordable housing is the most serious issue facing Santa Cruz.

We simply disagree on how to address it.

Currently, the city is engaged in an impressive effort to increase the availability of workforce and affordable housing, and downtown we see an impressive array of trucks, bulldozers and workers prepping hundreds of new residential units.

The height and density of this new construction remains controversial for many citizens of our community.

Our reality is stark.

Our affordable housing crisis cannot be addressed without increasing our density. Opposing density means you care more about the aesthetics or “vibe” of the city than you do about the desperate need of the people who live here.

But density is not all.

Design matters, too. Here, we are lucky.

Let’s look at the buildings that went onto Pacific Avenue after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left downtown in shambles. Post-earthquake regulations and guidelines required builders to create upper stories stepped back from the street. We got denser, taller buildings without a pedestrian experience of walking through a Wall Street-like canyon.

Solar studies inspired designs that allow for successful sidewalk restaurant experiences, and we have variegated buildings (no hulking blocks), varied visual planes and attractive windows. Most of the opposition to the taller buildings, which was massive during the redevelopment process, has evaporated today.

From the pedestrian point of view, you can see only the first one or two stories of each of the new buildings constructed after the earthquake. The architectural amenities were pivotal to the success and community acceptance of the increased density that occurred downtown after the earthquake.

And now we come to another important issue: the San Lorenzo River and its role in the creation of additional housing units downtown. We’ve ignored the San Lorenzo River far too long.

We need better access to it.

That’s why the new, denser buildings also must include increased open space and new passageways to the river.

Design regulations require the new buildings on Front and River streets to face the river — not blank walls and dumpsters. This is essential to the success of these projects.

Residents will come out their front doors to the riverwalk. Builders, designers and planners can create attractive outdoor space, including perhaps restaurants, between the new buildings and the levee.

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Residents will become stewards of and advocates for the river and work to make it an inviting public space rather than a simple drainage ditch and sacrifice area for social problems. Think of the number of world-class cities that open up onto their downtown rivers rather than turning their backs to this open space.

A similar concern for these kinds of design issues is crucial if we have any hope of gathering continued support for the current plans for downtown residential construction. Ultimately, the downtown construction plans of the current city council will probably be successful, but only with continued activism and support on the part of housing and social justice activists.

The City of Santa Cruz Planning Department and its Economic Development department need to support the work of these activists by requiring developers to pay attention to these design concerns.

So far, based on the project renderings these departments are circulating, design is playing a role.

But it is crucial that city planners and the council not allow the current support for increased density for affordable projects to result in cost-cutting (“value engineering”) on current projects. That will undermine community support for seeing the affordable housing effort through to its successful conclusion.

Let’s work to make sure that the now-strong public commitment to increased density for affordable housing does not lead to a backlash that undermines the long-term support for this effort.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lecturer and director of the Merrill College Field Study program at UCSC. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 53 years.

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