12 stories? Keeley’s new plan would flip script on controversial Warriors-area downtown expansion vision

Looking over downtown Santa Cruz toward Monterey Bay.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Advanced by the Santa Cruz City Council in June, the downtown expansion plan’s proposal for 15- and 17-story towers has found few supporters in the city. Mayoral candidate Fred Keeley has unveiled a new proposal that he vows, if elected, to put on the city council agenda in January. The focus? Lower height, more affordability.

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As Santa Cruz pushes toward its first district-based city council election, a lot of attention from voters and residents across the city has been turned downtown, specifically toward south of Laurel Street, where a significant redevelopment proposal is underway and confusing voters.

Fred Keeley, one of two candidates to become Santa Cruz’s first directly elected mayor, has unveiled a new proposal aimed at the redevelopment project known as the Downtown Plan Expansion. If elected in November, Keeley vows to put the proposal on the city council agenda as one of his first orders of business in January.

First, some background is in order: In June, the city council voted 4-2 to advance an abstract version of a downtown expansion plan to the environmental review phase. The proposal included a minimum of 1,600 units, one tower with a height limit of 175 feet, as well as a 150-foot height limit on other buildings in the project area. Almost immediately, the proposal created lots of talk of “skyscrapers” and changing the true physical character of Santa Cruz.

No candidate in this fall’s election has come out in support of 15- or 17-story buildings downtown, and most have come out in explicit opposition to the downtown tower idea, including incumbent City Councilmember Renée Golder, who voted to advance the project’s height limits to environmental review. Golder told Lookout earlier this month that “just because something is allowed doesn’t mean it’s definitely going to happen.”

Although he firmly believes 15-to-17-story towers aren’t likely to happen in downtown Santa Cruz, Keeley said the proposal and the city council’s action have confused people across the city. His new proposal, he said, is closer to where he thinks Santa Cruzans really are.

Longtime local and state politician Fred Keeley
Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Fred Keeley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Keeley wants to amend the redevelopment guidelines as follows:

  • A maximum of 1,600 units as opposed to a minimum of 1,600 units.
  • Building heights capped at 12 stories throughout the project.
  • A 20% affordability requirement applied to the total number of units in the project, including those awarded through density bonuses.

Keeley told Lookout that Measure O, which seeks to abandon progress on a downtown library mixed-use project with affordable housing, partially inspired his amendments.

“There’s no way [the existing Downtown Plan Expansion] would survive a citizen initiative,” said Keeley, who has consistently fielded concerns regarding the project on the campaign trail. Although he doesn’t foresee the city council giving final approval to 150- or 175-foot towers, he said even having those numbers out in the public confuses people. “It alienates the voters. Why put the community through this pointless thought exercise?”

Kaiser Permanente Arena, the 10-year-old home of the Santa Cruz Warriors
Kaiser Permanente Arena, the 10-year-old home of the Santa Cruz Warriors, sits at Front and Spruce streets, just south of Laurel Street.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The 20% affordability requirement addresses a concern raised frequently by the more progressive political sect in town, including Keeley’s mayoral opponent, Joy Schendledecker, and District 6 city council candidate Sean Maxwell. The city’s policy is to require 20% of the units initially proposed in a project to be set aside for low-income residents. However, the city also offers what is known as a density bonus to developers who meet that affordability requirement. If a developer of a 100-unit project sets aside 20% of the units (20 units) for low-income tenants, the developer can then increase the project’s total units by 35% (35 units) without increasing the total affordable units. The argument is that in the end, only 20 units (14.8%) are affordable in a now-135-unit development. Keeley’s proposal would extend the 20% affordability to any density bonuses awarded in the downtown expansion plan.

“Great, I like that. That’s huge, and it’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Maxwell said of the proposed affordability requirement. Although he said 12 stories is still higher than his preferred 10-story limit, he called the proposal a step in the right direction. “I would support this if I’m elected.”

Schendledecker, however, called Keeley’s plan “still not enough.” She criticized the project as a plan for a new neighborhood to be “built over an existing neighborhood.”

“We know 20% is still not enough given our needs,” Schendledecker said. “Good for him, but it’s a Band-Aid. Of course 20% affordability is less bad than 11% but it doesn’t change the structure or model of what is being built there. This needs to be a community-led process.”

Golder said she has already been working with other councilmembers to bring a similar amendment to the table in January, mostly focused on height limits. She said she planned to propose a 10-story limit, but she “could live with 12 stories.” However, she wants more discussion around the 20% affordability requirement.

“I would want to bring that back to the actual property owners and developers and see if that works for them,” said Golder, who, concerned about projects penciling out for developers, has stood firmly against increasing the city’s existing affordability policy. “If it works, it works. But a lot of work has already been going into it.”


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