Santa Cruz’s parking garage mistake: It would undermine library project, make affordable housing harder

Jason Architecture's rendering of the renovated Santa Cruz library at its existing location.
Jason Architecture’s rendering of the renovated Santa Cruz library at its existing location.
(Courtesy Rick Longinotti)

Santa Cruz voters delivered a historic “no” vote on Measure F last month. Rick Longinotti attributes this to mistrust in city government. Longinotti believes city staff buried a consultant’s downtown parking strategic plan to win city council support for a new parking garage to be constructed along with a new downtown library.

City of Santa Cruz voters departed from historic election trends in June by defeating Measure F, which sought to add half a cent to city sales tax. It is the first sales or property tax to fail in the last 40 years. By comparison, in 2018, 72% of Santa Cruz voters passed a sales tax increase.

What explains this change?

Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation
Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation
(courtesy of Rick Longinotti)

A poll commissioned by the city before the city council that placed the sales tax on the June ballot says, “33 percent [of respondents] said they would be much more likely to oppose the measure because ‘we cannot trust the city council to keep its promise to use the money properly unless the tax measure specifically says how the money must be used.’”

A Santa Cruz Sentinel editorial endorsed No on F vote, saying, “Many voters and residents are still angry over the 2016 Measure S countywide tax that has led to the multi-project library planned for downtown. We’ve called for a follow-up vote on this project, since the original measure said nothing about any such plan and many residents remain convinced they were deceived by the measure.”

The Sentinel is referring to the city’s proposal for a new downtown library with a 310-space parking structure and potentially over 100 units of affordable housing.

I agree with the Sentinel’s assessment.

The city’s promotion of the parking garage doesn’t meet the standards of good governance.

In December, 2016, city staff presented a proposal for a new parking structure to the city council without key information. Specifically, they presented a plan for a five-level parking structure without waiting for results of the Downtown Parking Strategic Plan – which Nelson\Nygaard consultants conducted under a $100,000 contract with the city.

When Nelson\Nygaard did submit its report, city staff never brought it to the city council for review. The contract called for a presentation to the council. That never happened. Nor was the report ever part of the council’s agenda packet.

I believe that’s because the report did not recommend a new parking structure. Instead, it says, “The most fiscally prudent approach to accommodating additional demand: modernize parking management and better align parking prices to the cost of building and maintaining the system.”

On a 4-2 vote, the council approved the concept of a parking structure, without the benefit of this crucial information.

The lack of transparency about the garage continues.

The city reports that the council could approve the mixed-use project in 2023, with construction beginning in 2024. However, there will be no construction unless the garage can secure bond financing. And there are no bond agencies that will extend credit to the city’s downtown parking district if it cannot show annual revenue to pay the bond debt.

The city budget shows in fiscal year 2022, the pandemic-afflicted downtown parking district deficit was $4 million, which is huge relative to the size of its expenditures of slightly over $8 million.

For 2023, the city projects a deficit of $2.6 million. There is no estimate for when the parking district will make ends meet, let alone generate the $2.9 million surplus city staff say is needed to make bond payments.

That surplus may never happen, as parking demand is trending downward in urban areas due, in part, to Uber and Lyft. Santa Cruz is no exception.

In 2019, parking consultant Patrick Siegman told the city council, “Downtown Santa Cruz parking demand is down 10% from its peak in 2008.” The city council already doubled parking rates beginning in 2019. There is no quick fix to bring profitability to downtown parking.

I believe our community’s best hope for getting housing built downtown anytime soon is the Our Downtown, Our Future ballot measure, which would amend the General Plan to “require, to the maximum extent feasible, that certain designated parcels situated within the City of Santa Cruz Downtown Plan area…be developed with permanently affordable housing, with parking permissible on the ground level...”

Those parcels are currently city parking lots. The General Plan would also recognize City Lot 4 (Cedar St. where the Farmers Market meets) as the “preferred long-term location of the Downtown Farmers Market as well as other fairs and public events…This policy priority shall specifically not preclude the development of affordable housing and associated uses on Lot 4.”

Without the millstone of financing a parking garage, the city’s process of developing housing on these downtown lots becomes more straightforward.

Opponents of the Our Downtown initiative adopt the false premise that we can’t have affordable housing while making a permanent home for our beloved Farmers Market on an improved community commons on Cedar Street.

Happily, we can do both.

Rick Longinotti is chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, which seeks to reduce our community’s dependency on auto travel by making it safe and convenient to get around without a private automobile. Rick is a marriage and family therapist and former electrical contractor. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 33 years.

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