Lookout Endorsement: If we want a vibrant farmers market, more affordable housing, a jewel of a new main branch library — and the ability to chart the future of downtown Santa Cruz step by step, with a free and open public process — we urge a no vote on Measure O. We think it will limit and restrict us too much today and tomorrow.
Editor’s note: A Lookout View is the opinion of our Community Voices opinion section, written by our editorial board, which consists of Community Voices Editor Jody K. Biehl and Lookout Founder Ken Doctor. Our goal is to connect the dots we see in the news and offer a bigger-picture view — all intended to see Santa Cruz County meet the challenges of the day and to shine a light on issues we believe must be on the public agenda. These views are distinct and independent from the work of our newsroom and its reporting.
The heart of the Measure O debate seems like a simple question: Santa Cruzans are trying to decide if the Santa Cruz downtown library should stay at its current Center and Church streets location and be renovated or move two blocks away onto a bigger lot and be built new.
It feels like this debate should be low stakes, especially when viewed with a wide lens and compared to the national debate over censorship, what counts as literature and what librarians can and can’t show kids. But angry tones and inexplicable vitriol (some quite personal) swirling (mostly online) about “the library issue” has divided the city, just as the spring nastiness around Measure D did. It’s created camps of yeasayers and naysayers, droves of warring yard signs and lists of “alternative facts.”
Poor Santa Cruzans trying to “get” Measure O have been left furrowing their brows, struggling to both absorb the details of their choice and to figure out whom they will insult by making it. Whose “side” will they fall on? Whom in their circle will they offend?
Politics often does this to us, but rarely over a library upgrade.
Let’s step away from those passions and look at the likely impact of the measure, if passed, and at the underlying question fueling this debate: Do we feel good about the city leaders’ view of Santa Cruz of the future?
That vision includes a state-of-the-art library, 124 units of affordable housing, a child care center and more parking on Lot 4 downtown. It is part of a bigger vision, which includes a forever home for the downtown farmers market and — Lookout recently learned — opens the possibility of a grassy downtown plaza in place of the old library.
Our answer about that plan is yes. Which means saying no to O.
On first hearing for many people, Measure O sounds great. It promises some of what the city’s plan does: a rebuilt library, a home for the farmers market and a new plaza in the middle of Santa Cruz. It seems less invasive, less trouble to renovate where it is, keep the farmers market in place. Not to change too much.
The rub? The city’s plans, we think, offer more with greater — and earlier — promise of success.
In fact, if voters approve Measure O, we believe they will find far more loss than gain. They will get a smaller, less cutting-edge library, less affordable housing and a weaker downtown, locally grown business culture. We worry that, as written, O would hamstring the city government’s options in years to come, putting decisions that should be in clay into concrete.
Plus, crucially, the city’s vision is already in advanced planning — after a far more deliberative public process than this initiative can offer voters in several months of a political campaign. That gives it momentum and a path to completion.
We’ll get a better library sooner by staying the course.
We know proponents of O are thoughtful, intelligent community-minded people. We have met and talked with them and we like and applaud their passion and the work they have done to make us smarter and the city’s project better.
We also believe they care about housing equity and creating more affordable units.
Unfortunately, Measure O It would set back the opening of 124 units of housing we desperately need. In an attempt to remedy that, O will — as we explain below — set up burdensome restrictions on eight city-owned lots, limiting their potential use for affordable housing. We believe this will limit future strategic decision-making and set us up for bureaucratic and legal chaos.
O will also make it harder for local downtown businesses to attract customers by greatly limiting future flexibility for parking — and limit the choice of where the farmers market can decide to move permanently.
The farmers market, which has unfortunately become a political football in this affair, is the most mind-boggling. Measure O clearly limits the autonomy of the farmers market, likely forcing it to stay on a single parcel, the now almost-notorious Lot 4, bounded by Cedar, Cathcart and Lincoln streets. It should be independent and do what is best for the market, its growers and, us, its patrons.
That’s an irony here, of course. Ask 10 people about O and the first words out of their mouths likely include “farmers market.”
In fact, market manager Nesh Dhillon has been clear as a summer market day that the market wants to decide its fate on its own, and his recent signing of a memorandum of understanding with the city underlines that point. If Measure O is defeated, the market will actually have much more choice than if it is passed, which would likely constructively restrict it to Lot 4.
That’s not enabling a better future for downtown or the market. That’s putting a straitjacket on both of them.
We know that’s not the intent of O’s proponents.
We recognize the big-tent campaign they have tried to build, We also understand their advocacy and their frustration with what they see as a city council and planning staff that doesn’t agree with them or communicate. We must note lack of agreement doesn’t mean lack of input.
Change is hard.
The multiuse project, subject to public exposure on and off over a six-year period, in fact improved because of the advocacy of some of O’s proponents. That is proof our system works.
Given the wide sweep of O, it’s unsurprising many voters may have a hard time sorting out its moving pieces.
Let’s quickly dissect each.
The farmers market
Measure O actually limits the market choices of location and gives it less independence to choose its own best location, as acknowledged by Dhillon. He’s been clear that he wants to make his own choices, independent of O. Two weeks ago, Dhillon signed a memorandum of understanding with the city that guarantees the market a home and $1.77 million infrastructure boost — and that funding will be attached to the market wherever it decides is its best location.
If Measure O is defeated, the market will actually have much more choice than if it is passed, which could constructively restrict it to Lot 4.
The city project adds 124 units of affordable housing on Lot 4. If O passes, housing can’t be built there.
O proponents say they are willing to trade that housing loss to gain more affordable housing on eight city-owned lots downtown. Within O, the measure sets a rigid requirement for those lots. It “require(s), to the maximum extent feasible,” permanent affordable housing and prevents parking structures from even being considered down the line.
O doesn’t offer any plan or funding for those properties. And as it turns out, the city has already assessed those eight properties, and believes only three of them could support housing. The others are too small or inadequate in other ways.
It makes no sense to legally mandate housing on lots that can’t handle it; that will create only more cost and headache. Let’s do our planning in public discussion, not by a hurried initiative that confuses voters and will gum us up later.
We now take for granted the generosity of county voters, when, in 2016, they voted $67 million in bonds to propel the county’s 10-branch system into modernity. It was a contemporary, Carnegie Library-like civic decision we can be proud of. Now, nine county libraries are either redone or are moving toward completion.
The downtown main branch will be the latest and the biggest — and should be the centerpiece of the system.
In fact, given the global citizens who call Santa Cruz home, the discussion of what the library should look like and contain even included esteemed, retired librarians on the committee. The conclusion of that Downtown Library Advisory Committee — after a year of discussion and debate — was clear: build the new larger library rather than spend the money renovating the current library, because that would result in an inferior result.
Four redone Santa Cruz County library branches have reopened and four more will throw open their doors by the end of the...
Beyond that, building new, rather than renovating, means that the downtown branch doesn’t need to be closed to students and the wider public for two years — and it provides the possibility of a new urban space, one that the city and the farmers market, among others, are looking at for a plaza.
We’re surprised by O’s proponents’ claim that they feel hoodwinked by a brand-new library when they believe they were promised “renovation.” Is anyone in Capitola or Aptos or Felton complaining about the gleaming new palaces of learning they are getting? Why would they?
The downtown commons/plaza
Who doesn’t love the little Mexican Republic-era plazas that dot smaller California cities?
Santa Cruz, unlike Watsonville, never got one, though the innovation of Abbott Square five years ago has partially filled that gap, creating a vibrant meeting place downtown.
A new plaza is a good idea — properly planned, financed and optimized for its uses. As we’ve noted, the city envisioned such a possibility long before O qualified for the ballot, and we’d like to see that planning — in public — continue. Simply designating a plaza by measure, with no plan, might seem empowering, but it isn’t how democracy works.
Downtown business and parking
First Amazon and then COVID have changed the face of business in downtown Santa Cruz — and issued a new challenge to our unique identity.
But small businesses, run and owned by local people, remain our core. Where they can be built — standing alone or as part of multiuse projects — should be left to future planning and debate. Further, though, none of us much enjoys the aesthetics of parking garages, businesses need customers, and in 2022, customers (and, yes, the population is still aging) need parking. How much, where? Let’s make that a public process — not one that sends us back to the fine print of an initiative few have read.
Hospitality, along with agriculture, remains one of the two biggest industries — and sources of employment in the county. The Cruz Hotel project, at Front and Laurel streets, is a potential economic driver, a provider of construction and then service jobs.
Measure O’s restrictions on using small city-owned parking lots might prevent its completion. It’s a project the city believes residents badly need and is better suited to a hotel than housing.
Perhaps, a yes vote on O is a vote to keep Santa Cruz just as it is today. That can resonate with many of us.
The truth, though, is that the city is changing, and will need to change to meet the challenges ahead.