Measure O and parking in downtown Santa Cruz: Counting the spots and the money

An aerial view of Front Street from the east side of the San Lorenzo River.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A 243-space parking garage is at the heart of the Measure O debate. Here we look at all the moving pieces on the lots all around downtown Santa Cruz, and the dollars-and-cents questions that surround them.

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Measure O’s biggest flashpoints — the new downtown Santa Cruz library location, affordable housing, the future of the farmers market — have almost obscured one of its early concerns: parking.

The multiuse project planned for Lot 4, on which voters will decide through their vote up or down on Measure O on the Nov. 8 ballot, includes a new 243-space parking garage. Measure O proponents take serious issue with it. They say that another parking garage would be costly, detrimental to climate goals and simply unnecessary.

City planners say that the city has lost some public parking since 2018, is set to lose more as several projects come to fruition, and that more spaces are needed to support current and expected business activity and the influx of more residents as housing occupies more parcels.

Parking has long been controversial in downtown Santa Cruz. Despite some strides in public transit, cars remain a dominant mode of transportation to and from downtown. Is there enough capacity today? Will there be tomorrow? Those questions have driven many a city council meeting and other debates, and they are brought forward again with Measure O.

While the longer-term forecasts for parking downtown will undoubtedly be a hot topic for years, here we take a look at two big questions connected to Measure O: nearer-term parking capacity and the money surrounding the parking issue.

How does parking capacity change if O passes or fails?

In 2020, there were 2,950 public parking spaces in downtown Santa Cruz, according to City of Santa Cruz Transportation Planner Claire Gallogly. Since then, 264 more spaces have been lost to development:

  • 108 spaces in Lot 5, next to Calvary Episcopal Church on Cedar Street;
  • 49 spaces between Lots 22 and 23, across from Sesame Grill and Monster Pot on Front Street;
  • 15 spaces in Lot 12, directly adjacent to the quickly growing Pacific Station South development;
  • 32 spaces in Lot 27, at the corner of Laurel and Front streets.

Officials also expect about 60 street spaces to be removed for the city’s parklet program — the in-the-street outdoor eating areas people have come to appreciate amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If we factor those out as well, that leaves 2,686 spaces in downtown Santa Cruz without considering Measure O outcomes.

According to a September Measure O report to the Santa Cruz City Council by California-based real estate economic advisory firm Keyser Marston Associates, 218 spaces would be lost if Measure O fails and the downtown library project moves forward, its current site is redeveloped, and the Cruz Hotel project is completed.

Per the City of Santa Cruz, those are:

  • 134 spaces on Lot 4, where the library project would be built;
  • 24 spaces on Lot 11 next to Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, which would be developed into the Cruz Hotel project;
  • 22 and 38 spaces on Lots 14 and 16, respectively, which are adjacent to the current site of the downtown library.

That said, the proposed 243-space parking garage would result in a net gain of 25 parking spaces in downtown Santa Cruz, or 2,711 total parking spaces.

A map of the downtown parking district, with the lots in question highlighted.
(Via Keyser Marston Associates)

If Measure O passes, some city-owned parking lots would be prioritized for affordable-housing development, which could result in spaces lost. Assuming all lots determined feasible for affordable housing by the Keyser Marston report are built upon, the lost spaces would be:

  • 85 spaces in Lot 7, behind Pizza My Heart and Kianti’s;
  • 49 spaces in Lot 8, across the street from Jack’s Hamburgers;
  • 45 spaces in Lot 9, behind Lúpulo Craft Beer House.

The combined 60 spaces between Lots 14 and 16 could also be lost in this scenario, though the Keyser Marston report says those lots are unlikely to support affordable housing development.

If that all proves to be true, and the other three lots are developed into affordable housing projects while the 134 spaces of Lot 4 are retained, the passing of Measure O would result in a net loss of 179 spaces, leaving 2,507 total parking spaces in downtown Santa Cruz.

Measure O does, however, authorize development on Lot 4. Should that happen, some of its 134 spaces could be scrapped as well.

Where does money factor in?

Brian Borguno, City of Santa Cruz development manager and former parking programs manager, explained that the city plans to use “parking enterprise funds“ to finance the $14-16 million parking garage.

“We have some money dedicated to the project right now already in the project budget, but the anticipation is that we will be supporting debt service to either bond or finance the fully funded portion of this facility,” he said.

Most public projects seek revenue bonds, or municipal bonds issued by state or local entities to fund revenue-generating projects. In this case, that would be a parking district bond.

Rick Longinotti, chair of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation and Yes on O leader, said he doubts the feasibility of using parking district funds to finance the project, citing a running deficit since the pandemic as a key reason.

“There are a lot of boarded-up storefronts, and a lot of people who are now working from home, and that may continue,” he said. “My guess is that the parking district will recover to some extent, but I have no idea whether it will recover to the extent that they’ll be able to issue bonds. Anyone who says otherwise, I think is just blowing smoke.”

For Longinotti, this raises questions of feasibility for the entire project.

“If we have to wait years before the garage can be financed, that’s a long delay,” he said. “If you can’t finance a piece of it, like the garage, then how are you going to build the housing?”

Don Lane, former Santa Cruz mayor and Measure O opponent, acknowledges the depleted parking fund of recent years, but points to hiked parking rates, the waning pandemic and future revenue from parking permits associated with new housing set for downtown as reasons that revenue outlook could improve.

Borguno added that there are other revenue sources the city can use to fund the garage.

“We increased our monthly parking fees for monthly permit-holders, as well as user fees on parking-meter revenues and hourly rates in the garages already built,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to go with revenue bonds if we could look at other financial tools like leveraging the paid-off facilities that we already own.”

“Like that old saying, there’s more than one way to skin the cat,” said Lane.

However, if there is enough parking-district revenue to finance the garage, Longinotti said he believes that there should be enough to fund other things, like Measure O seeks to do.

“We don’t know when or if there will be a surplus, but to the extent that we do have a surplus, our choice is to spend it on affordable housing rather than parking,” he said. “If they think they can finance a garage, certainly there’ll be a savings then that can go for other purposes.”

Borguno says it’s not that simple.

“From my understanding, the uses are very limited, and it’s only after all other obligations have been met by the district,” he said. “If we currently had surplus, after operations were covered and all capital projects were completed, that would have to go towards any remaining debt service we currently carry before it can be spent on anything else.”


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