A lot of disagreement: Measure O galvanizes competing visions of downtown Santa Cruz

The downtown Santa Cruz farmers market at its current site on Lot 4.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lot 4 could become one of the most significant downtown Santa Cruz construction projects since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, with a new main branch public library, 120 units of affordable housing and a three-level parking garage. But if Measure O proponents win at the polls, the current library will be renovated and plans will begin for a new parklike space. No matter which way the vote falls, it’s nearly certain that downtown Santa Cruz will get a new library and that the farmers market will continue to operate. The big questions are when and where.

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For six days a week, Lot 4 in downtown Santa Cruz is nothing special. It’s a sizable but ugly urban parking lot on Cedar Street, just a block over from Pacific Avenue, a convenient place to leave your car perhaps while you meet a friend at Lupulo or pick up a gift package at Pacific Cookie Company, but certainly not a place you’d linger.


Oddly, this unremarkable, tired old parking lot is the latest battleground for the future of the downtown, in part because of what happens there that other day of the week.

Lot 4 is the site of the weekly downtown farmers market, a beloved community touchstone and a can’t-miss ritual every Wednesday for hundreds of people in and even outside Santa Cruz, as it has been for more than 20 years.

A measure on the November ballot in the city of Santa Cruz, Measure O, will decide the fate of this specific expanse of cracked asphalt.

If O passes, its proponents envision a new town square at Lot 4, a downtown commons still very much in the conceptual stage.

But if Measure O is defeated, the city government can move forward with its already-in-motion big plans for Lot 4, the roots of which go back 10 years.

In development parlance, it’s a “mixed-use library project,” a three-in-one project to include more than 120 units of affordable housing, a three-level parking garage, and a spanking new downtown public library to serve as main branch for the county library system. The new library would be the largest in the county and about a fifth larger than the renovation of the library that Measure O calls for. It would be financed in part by the $67 million in bonds approved by voters in 2016’s Measure S vote. (Overall, Measure S has led to the replacement or renovation of all the branch libraries in the county. The downtown branch would be the largest of those funded by Measure S.) The new parking structure’s 243 spaces would replace the 139 surface-lot spaces now on the parcel.

The new showcase library, along with new housing, would transform the block in what would be one of the most significant downtown construction projects since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The project would be expected to break ground by 2024. What would the new library, on Cedar Street between Lincoln and Cathcart streets, look like? Below is an architectural rendering that shows the plan.

A rendering of the proposed new library/mixed-use project, as seen from Cedar Street at Cathcart Street.
A rendering of the proposed new library/mixed-use project, as seen from Cedar Street at Cathcart Street. A yes vote on Measure O would halt the project.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

Measure O, to put it starkly, is an effort to derail the mixed-use library project and to stop the building of a new library. In fact, it might be best understood as the “Keep Things Where They Are” referendum. If passed, Measure O would nix a new library and instead direct the city to renovate the existing main branch library on Church Street. It would also “maintain the farmers market at its current location,” although the market’s own management has been less than embracing of committing itself to that location. And, though it’s not explicit in the measure itself, O would also open the door for creating a new “downtown commons,” though when this sylvan vision might come to pass is unclear. (O authorizes, but does not require, development on Lot 4.)

But O’s potential impact extends beyond Lot 4. The initiative, brought to voters by a group of citizens called Our Downtown, Our Future, would require to the “maximum extent feasible” permanent affordable housing on eight existing city-owned parking lots downtown not including Lot 4. In essence, if passed, O could limit the city council’s ability to decide the location and nature of new development on those eight lots.

The 32-year-old downtown Santa Cruz market is almost ready to move to a new “permanent,” city-owned location a block and...

What’s at stake, and what does it mean going forward, if O passes or if it fails? Both sides agree that the shorthand the public might have assumed, that this is a “save the library” or “save the farmers market” vote, is wrong. No matter which way the vote falls, it’s nearly certain that downtown Santa Cruz will get a new library and that the farmers market will continue to operate.

The big questions are these: when and where.

Supporters of the new library project, which include a critical mass of the city’s elected leaders over the past eight years, insist that Measure O is a desperate attempt to halt a process that has been in development for years, a plan that has broad public support, and is well down the road to groundbreaking.

They’ll often cite the “bird-in-hand” argument, that Measure O would waste funds already raised or spent for the new library, that O would result in a smaller, inferior library, and that it would be willing to trade away 123 units of affordable housing within reach in a couple of years for a vague plan to build an undetermined number of units on existing parking lots at some unknown future date.

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane, a supporter of the new library and a staunch no-on-O vote, argues that the housing units included in the new library project represents real-world progress in what even Measure O backers say they want: more affordable housing.

O, said Lane, represents “an idealized image of what our town could be. It feels good, but it doesn’t work. And it’s not realistic. The change that people sometimes say they don’t want means that they’re forcing a different change. [They’ll say], ‘Well, we don’t want the buildings to change. We want all of this to stay the way it is. But in doing that, they’re basically saying the people who used to be able to live here don’t get to live here anymore,” he said, referencing the increasing difficulty that low- and middle-income wage-earners have in finding affordable housing.

A rendering of the renovated main branch library at its present site at Church and Center streets.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

Measure O’s backers say the new library project represents a betrayal of the county’s Measure S, the 2016 referendum that passed with 70% approval to fund improvements to the 10-branch county library system. Though Measure S did allow for funding to be put toward a new library, O’s advocates insist that voters approved the bond measure under the impression that the funds would be used to renovate the existing library, as was the case at several other branches in the county. (Of the nine other branches funded by S, three have seen new replacement buildings, including Felton, Capitola and Aptos, along with an annex to the Live Oak library to open in 2023, and six have seen renovation.)

“Our community voted to tax ourselves for what really seemed like a renovation campaign,” said Lira Filippini, the co-chair of Our Downtown, Our Future, the group spearheading passage of Measure O. “The campaign [for Measure S] really talked about improving, modernizing and repairing our branch libraries. And so when the campaign focuses on those things, and then, in the fine text of the measure, it says, ‘and build new facilities where necessary,’ most people aren’t going to see that.”

But the library plan has changed significantly since the passage of S in 2016, said Lane. After Measure S passed, a subcommittee called the Downtown Library Advisory Committee (DLAC), made up of library professionals and other community activists, spent about a year studying, with public input, various options for the main branch, including the new library on Cedar Street and renovation at the present site. After examining national trends in libraries, the projected needs of local library patrons in the coming decades and what would be needed to renovate the present site, the committee recommended unanimously to build a new library.

The downtown Santa Cruz farmers market at its current site on Lot 4.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The idea was, ‘Should we try and put the library and the parking [garage] together on this site?’, and that was the beginning,” said Lane. “At that time, it was way more parking, and it was a pretty modest library. Then, think about the sweep of five years. What has changed? Well, there was no housing [in the beginning], now there’s a huge amount of housing. The parking has gotten cut by more than half. The library itself got way bigger, and better. There’s a child care center now as part of this project. I can go on, there’s smaller details beyond that of how it’s changed. So, how did that happen? Well, it’s because there was all this processing going on, and people speaking up and saying, ‘Hey, it should be better than what you started with.’”

Measure O’s main support comes from a loose coalition of various groups and activated citizens — Downtown Commons Advocates, ReImagine Santa Cruz, Don’t Bury the Library, the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation and others — each of whom have different reasons for opposing the new library project.

The proposed parking garage especially seems to be a lightning rod for criticism. Much of the energy behind Measure O, in fact, comes from those who insist that building another parking structure downtown is unnecessary, expensive, and out of step with taking steps to mitigate climate change and make a stand against car culture.

Others simply don’t want the library to move, feeling that something would be lost if the library would stray from its spot across from City Hall and the Civic Auditorium, even if the new library would be only a couple of blocks away. Others are supporting Measure O for the sake of the farmers market, though the market’s board itself remains neutral on the issue. If O fails and the new library project goes forward, the farmers market could move to Lot 7, near Cathcart and Front streets, as the city and the farmers market reached a non-binding agreement to work through the potential of permanent infrastructure at the new proposed site. Though they are not involved in the management of the market, O’s backers say that Lot 7 is inferior to Lot 4 as a site for the farmers market.

No-on-O forces who support the library/mixed-use project represent a broad cross-section of mainstream political and economic interests including the Democratic Party of Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, the Cabrillo College board of trustees, the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz, the Friends of Santa Cruz Public Libraries and many others.

No-on-O advocates who support the new library are particularly bothered by what they see as Measure O’s casual tossing aside of a carefully considered, detailed project in favor of what they see as vague projections and wishlists. Mixed-used projects, they say, are more efficient in terms of energy use and construction costs, and the new design will give Santa Cruz a showcase library in ways that a renovation of the old library simply would not.

“It’s just really so uninformed,” said Lane in reference to the affordable housing part of Measure O. “It just kind of misleads people into thinking, Oh, if you stop this project, you’re not really setting back affordable housing, but if this measure passes, we are stopping that project and it is a big setback. And it’s not easy to just restart it somewhere else.”

What would be the impacts if Measure O passes, given its broad reach? That’s still being parsed by all involved.

Most agree that timelines on both the next library and the construction of new housing would be extended; how long would be in contention. Reconstruction of a new main branch would mean the closing of the main branch for months, and likely longer.

But Measure O’s backers are quick to add that whatever delays might result from the passage of O, decisions today on the fate of Lot 4 will influence and affect generations of Santa Cruzans for decades to come.

As we get closer to Election Day, Lookout Santa Cruz will look deeper into the issues surrounding Measure O, including the four main arms of what the measure entails: the library, the farmers market, the parking garage, and the affordable housing units. We’ll look closer at the competing visions of the new library, for instance. We’ll look at what the passage of O, or its failure, will do to the housing market, and we’ll examine the controversy behind downtown parking.

Both sides agree that O will not decide whether Santa Cruz gets a new library or whether the downtown farmer market will continue. Both of those things seem certain to happen. Everything else, however, is up for debate.