Measure O deserves a no; the rest is magical thinking and pixie dust

Icons indicate the housing, library, child care and parking portions of the mixed-use project.
(Jayson Architecture via City of Santa Cruz)

The opposition to the proposed new downtown Santa Cruz library began with parking — specifically people opposed to ever adding any parking downtown. Over time, Mike Rotkin writes, others found reasons to oppose the project and joined the effort in support of Measure O. But nothing changes the fact that the proposed library will be bigger and better for less cost than rebuilding a library on its current site.

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Measure O on the November ballot in the city of Santa Cruz proposes to kill a proposed new library project and, instead, mandate that the existing downtown central library branch be rehabilitated on its current site. I tried to not get into the middle of the fray, but the misleading arguments being made in support of the measure have finally pushed me to dedicate this Lookout piece to the topic.

Mike Rotkin

Hopefully, you’ll forgive me if I get a bit polemical.

I served as a member of the city-county library board on and off, for over 25 years starting in 1979. From my first meeting on the board until my last, there was a shared understanding among library staff and board members that the existing central branch library building was in need of replacement. It had serious structural problems, an asbestos problem, an antiquated heating and air conditioning system that was beyond repair, and was too small to fulfill its functions in the 10-branch Santa Cruz Public Libraries system.

In 2016, voters passed Measure S, a proposition to fund upgrades or replacements for all 10 branches in the system. Nothing in the measure indicated whether the various branches would be rehabilitated or replaced and — despite arguments manufactured during the current crisis that voters were led to believe that the central branch would be rehabilitated rather than replaced — nothing was said about that issue during the campaign for Measure S.

Measure S funds have now been used to build one new library in Felton on a new site, a new library in Aptos on the previous site for that branch, and to rehabilitate and/or expand the other libraries in the system, including Capitola.

When the library staff and its board began to develop plans for how the Measure S funds would be spent on the downtown library, they considered several scenarios — including rehabilitating the existing building, building a new library on the existing site, or building a new building elsewhere.

They hired consultants, experts and held regular public meetings on this.

Every staff report, consultant’s report, subcommittee report and library board report recommended building a new library on a different site downtown.

Local government agencies shared in the decision on how to spend Measure S funds.The Santa Cruz City Council initially voted 4-2 in favor of the new site, with Councilmember Cynthia Mathews abstaining because she owned property near the site. Councilmembers Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown voted against it, but then, after Cummings got more information, he changed his vote and voted for it.

The reason for this strong support from all of the library staff, library consultants, library committees, the library board and the city council was not difficult to understand.

The proposed new library on a new site offered a larger library for less cost than rehabbing the old building.

Also, building on the existing library site would require closing the downtown branch for over two years during construction, while moving to a new site might close the library for a few weeks to move materials.

While it is not an unreasonable view that we should always consider reusing things before building new ones, it is not a universal law that this should always be the case. In this case, the benefits of the new library were obvious to the professional library staff, consultants and citizens who volunteer their time to run our library system.

But a few years into the planning for the new library, opposition arose.

It came initially from a group called Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. They objected to the inclusion in the new project of a parking garage. They are focused on climate change issues and it’s their view that we should not build anything that supports continued use of the automobile.

If people are denied parking opportunities, they argue, they will be forced to consider alternatives like public transit, bicycles and walking.

While they are correct that overbuilding parking will tend to encourage more automobile use, they don’t give much credence to the argument that reducing parking will need to occur over time — and only as actual public transit alternatives emerge.

At one point, they brought a proposal to the city council asking to amend the general plan to forbid any new projects that added a single mile of new car traffic to the city. Such a ludicrous requirement would kill any new housing (or other) project, and thankfully, the council rejected it.

The parking garage — another part those putting forth Measure O focus on extensively — was in the plans for the new library for two reasons. First, it would actually help subsidize the building costs for the new library because of its contributions to the building’s infrastructure. Second, because there was going to be a need for some new parking downtown as a result of plans to build housing and other projects on virtually every downtown surface parking lot. At the end of all planned construction, there will be less parking downtown than before. Hence, the need for the garage with the library.

Every sensible planner agrees that consolidating parking in garages rather than proliferating it in surface parking lots is the best approach. The new parking would make it cheaper to build and rent the affordable housing the city plans to build around the new library site.

However, after the public reacted strongly to the addition to so much parking, the city shifted, redesigned the project and added affordable housing, a child care center and reduced the parking spaces from 600 to about half that number.

This is a totally appropriate response to citizen input in public hearings and how our government should work.

Unfortunately, rather than seeing this as the integration of citizen input into planning, the supporters of Measure O view this as a conspiracy to make the new library project more attractive to voters.

Measure O supporters also added a plethora of additional baseless arguments against the new library.

One — that the new library will force the Wednesday downtown farmers market to move — ignores the fact that the city had already been planning (for the past five years) to move the market to a new permanent, all-weather home with improved facilities.

Two weeks ago, the city and the farmers market signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding to assure the market a permanent home. The MOU comes with a $1.7 million investment by the city to provide infrastructure to the market. Right now, the most likely place is Lot 7, which runs along Front Street, bordered by Cathcart Street and the parking lot behind New Leaf Community Market.

Measure O proponents also argue the new library will require the removal of a number of beautiful, large trees. This ignores the fact that whatever is built on the proposed site or most of the other downtown parking lots will require the removal of trees — some of them heritage trees.

And the language of Measure O “mandates” affordable housing be built on other downtown parking lots. This is laughable because it provides no funding for such housing, while the proposed library-housing project is already funded and designed. Also, I believe many of the lots are not large enough to make sense for affordable housing.

Finally, my now-favorite argument is one I recently heard. It is that the new library-housing project will require a lot of concrete.

Is wood or some other material somehow more sustainable than concrete? I suppose a rehabbed central branch on the current site would use less concrete because it is a smaller and less functional library built for more money.

Maybe they should build the new library out of pixie dust?

Mike Rotkin is a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, a former six-term Santa Cruz City Councilmember, and a former five-time mayor of the City of Santa Cruz.

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