As Santa Cruz plots an electric future, U.S. energy officials tour city with offer of federal funds
Ariel Marshall, a senior official from the U.S. Department of Energy visited Santa Cruz city leaders on Wednesday to learn about progress made on all-electric housing and other developments. Marshall’s message was loud and clear: there’s federal money for more of the city’s climate-friendly projects.
A top bureaucrat with the U.S. Department of Energy met with senior Santa Cruz officials this week, bringing a message for the city’s rapidly redeveloping downtown: the federal government is spending big money on climate-friendly infrastructure projects and cities like Santa Cruz should take advantage.
Ariel Marshall, chief of staff to the undersecretary of science at the U.S. Department of Energy, met with Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, the city’s Director of Economic Development Bonnie Lipscomb, other officials and a representatives from PG&E Wednesday and toured one of the all-electric developments underway downtown.
Marshall said she saw the visit as an opportunity both to better understand how Santa Cruz was making use of federal programs to support local decarbonization efforts and to advertise federal funding that the city should tap into to pay for these kinds of projects.
She stressed that the city needed to take advantage of funds available as part of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which passed with bipartisan support in 2021. The legislation offers billions to rebuild the country’s crumbling highways, bridges and transit systems. It also includes huge pots of money for projects to address climate change, such as upgrading power grids, building electric vehicle charging stations and funding zero emissions transit.
City officials gave Marshall a tour of the redevelopment of the downtown Metro Station, which was planned after Santa Cruz passed an ordinance banning natural gas in new buildings in 2020. The city suspended that ordinance in June after a federal appeals court struck down a nearly identical ordinance in Berkeley.
However, Tiffany Wise-West, Santa Cruz’s climate action manager, said city administrators are planning to put another ordinance before council to support all-electric buildings and the city continues to move forward on a variety of all-electric developments.
“We hope it’s just a bump in the road,” Wise-West said of the Berkeley court decision.
There are at least a dozen housing projects in various stages of development in downtown Santa Cruz, totalling 1,400 units – of which more than 36 per cent are affordable housing.
Most of those are all-electric, said Dave McCormic, the city’s asset and development manager. There are several other all-electric projects under construction or approved outside the downtown, including 831 Water Street, a mixed-use development at the intersection of Water Street and North Branciforte Avenue east of downtown.
The Metro Station redevelopment is split into two phases: Pacific South, which is currently under construction, and Pacific North, which will begin construction in February 2024. Combined the projects will include 183 affordable units, a new transit center, a medical and dental clinic, and commercial space.
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As for projects that don’t involve housing, the new downtown library is definitely planned as all-electric, McCormic said, though it is too soon to say exactly whether the other non-housing developments, such as a new Santa Cruz Warriors arena, will also be all-electric. He said the city’s intention is to reduce or eliminate fossil fuels, including natural gas, as much as possible in its new developments, in accordance with its 2030 climate action plan.
Many of the city’s downtown projects are moving quickly, like Cedar Street Apartments, a 65-unit affordable housing complex next to the Calvary Episcopal Church, between Cedar and Center streets. The project took only five months from securing permitting to beginning construction.
“We’re going through a very significant change,” Keeley told the group. “We’re seeing three quarters of a billion dollar investment in little downtown – for us, that’s an enormous investment.”
Marshall stated how impressed she was with these developments.
“This is an example of industry and the government working together towards a mutual goal to get it done quickly and cut through red tape,” she said. “Other towns would love to learn how to do this. I hope you’re telling your story so others can follow suit.”
She encouraged the city to go after money from initiatives such as the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, which provides services meant to improve energy efficiency to low-income households and received an influx of cash from the infrastructure bill.
Keely used the meeting as a way to align the city with Biden’s approach to economic development, referencing a speech Biden made earlier that day as part of gearing up for the 2024 presidential elections about growing the economy “from the middle out and bottom up.”
“The things we’re talking about fit in that,” Keely said. “To be able to be a progressive community and be able to operationalize what President Biden said – bottom up, middle out.”
Marshall, whose work at the Department of Energy revolves around the administrative implementation of policy rather than creating legislation, said that she was going back to Washington, D.C. with more insight into how cities like Santa Cruz are interpreting and making use of already existing federal programs.
“These conversations with the city informed me of resources they tap into,” Marshall said. “And in response I gave suggestions they should look to to make their dollars go further.”
McCormic said he hoped the city’s success stories would also make it to Capitol Hill and saw Marshall’s visit as an opportunity to discuss what innovations could be possible with policy improvements at the federal level.
“It can be done and Washington needs to know there’s more that can be done,” McCormic said. “Wholesale change is needed to combat climate change but the speed needs to pick up.”