You can see the big new building fast rising at Front and Laurel in downtown Santa Cruz. That’s just the first wave of massive redevelopment that will change a big swath of downtown — and heralds even more high-density development to come. Take a tour of the vision that is fast becoming reality.
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If a DeLorean can be a time machine, then why not a Santa Cruz Metro city bus?
In order to understand exactly what’s going on with all the construction and development in downtown Santa Cruz, we’re going to board our magic Metro bus and take a ride, from 2022 to a nice midsummer’s day in 2026. So find a seat and get comfortable.
We’ll alert you when we arrive in the future. But first, a bit of background to help you understand the terrain.
Surely you’ve noticed the changing downtown in recent months. Maybe you’re nostalgic for the corner Taco Bell at Pacific and Laurel, or the neighboring Salvation Army thrift store, both of which are long gone and now only part of downtown history. Maybe you only vaguely remember why The 418 Project on Front Street had to move, or why India Joze closed.
Downtown Santa Cruz is in the middle of its most extensive redevelopment facelift since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. What could and should be built or preserved in downtown Santa Cruz is a debate that’s been raging for decades. Everybody has their opinion on exactly where the balance point is between upgrading the downtown as a livable space and keeping safe the unique cultural character that makes Santa Cruz what it is. Loma Prieta destroyed the Pacific Garden Mall and provided a dramatic reset for downtown. The COVID pandemic has not been quite as topsy-turvy as Loma Prieta in its power to reshape downtown. But the pandemic did provide a sense of urgency to bring about a vision of downtown that was already in the works at the time.
The pressures for change today can best be summed up in one word: housing. One recent report ranked the Santa Cruz/Watsonville metro area as the second-most-expensive housing market in the entire United States, behind only San Francisco. In addressing the shocking and enraging costs of basic housing, the City of Santa Cruz has embraced the concept of “high density,” that is, building vertically instead of horizontally. The term itself carries a bit of a scary connotation, images of congestion and overcrowding, ticky-tacky Miami Beach-style monoliths blocking out the sun and bulldozing any trace of local character. But “low density” has its own bad reputation, suburban sprawl and long commutes, eating up farmland and generating more traffic on local roadways. And the no-growth option could mean economic stagnation and likely housing costs going even higher, forcing more and more working- and middle-class wage-earners to move away.
Change is coming
Here, we are going to zero in on an area we’re calling “Six Blocks,” encompassing sections of Pacific Avenue and Front Street, bordered by Soquel Avenue to the north and Laurel Street to the south. While it will see major change, it doesn’t include lots of other big change happening all around its borders. It’s a radius that does not include the hotly debated library/mixed-use project or other high-profile developments, including the La Bahia hotel project, the possible new arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors, the now-in-the-planning stages 15- and 17-story skyscrapers being sketched out just a few blocks to the south, where the current Kaiser Permanente Arena sits — or other developments already well underway around town.
But within the Six Blocks, there are no less than six separate large development projects either under construction, approved, or proposed. If they are all completed, it would mark a breathtaking transformation of downtown.
What we’ll be experiencing here is, like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, merely a possible future, if present trends and plans hold true. Any number of equally possible variables — a recession, an earthquake, political upheaval — could upend or derail parts of this particular future.
This vision also represents only the best-case scenario for those who are developing and who will seek to profit from the projects now underway. That rosy picture might not include, for example, how homeless populations could affect the plans, or the negative effects of traffic and congestion that might result from the new development. It doesn’t really address the environmental issues facing the San Lorenzo River, a central component of most of these projects.
For optimists in Santa Cruz, all this new construction is an enormous act of faith, a big bet on the future economic activity and prosperity. Critics are just as likely to view it as an act of hubris or greed. In the housing realm, it’s clearly an act of necessity. The state of California, through the regional Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG), is mandating that the city build some 3,700 units in an eight-year cycle that’s to begin in 2023.
“We want to create this housing,” said Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s economic development director. “But it’s daunting to have this imposed on us.”
Whatever the future will bring, there will be parts of downtown that will soon be all but unrecognizable to locals. The height of the new buildings alone will create a much more urban vibe, and the revitalization of the San Lorenzo riverfront with access to restaurants and cafes, gathering places and outdoor yoga spaces, elegant architectural gateways and new retailers. If all the housing now planned within the Six Blocks area were built, that would add 820 units. Add in other downtown housing projects, and the wider housing push downtown could add a total of 1,200 new units and up to 3,000 new residents living downtown, says the city.
How all these new buildings, new people, new businesses and new environments will alter the downtown business district and that slippery concept of Santa Cruz-ness, nobody has anything more than educated guesses. The scale of these changes could be disorienting, even disturbing to many who live and work downtown. This story marks the beginning of Lookout’s commitment to cover these issues in a new series we’re calling “Changing Santa Cruz.” Our tour of the future raises a lot of questions that we won’t try to answer here. Our job here is to paint a picture of a future envisioned by developers and the city officials working with them.
Evangelists for the new development will claim it will bring an exciting new era of economic and cultural ferment to the area. Critics will claim it will forever distort the unique character of Santa Cruz and that we might as well rename the city San Jose By the Sea. What it will actually bring, in terms of both economic activity and urban headaches, almost certainly falls somewhere in between those two extremes. But one thing is clear, no matter your perspective. Change is coming, and soon. Marching in place does not seem to be an option.
There is what science-fiction writers call a “darker timeline” here, other possible less rosy futures for downtown Santa Cruz. But, for a moment, let’s assume what’s being planned downtown is going to happen just as the planners say it will. Let’s see what they see.
The magic bus
Welcome to 2026. In our fancy time-machine Metro bus, we are now pulling into the new Metro station on Front Street. Yep, I see it, too. It’s a recognizable vestige of 2022, a mural of an enormous translucent Disney-meets-Chernobyl mermaid fighting malicious eels. It was painted on the south side of the 1010 Pacific building back in the fall of 2021. Then, it overlooked a bus parking lot where pedestrians are not allowed, and though you could see it from Pacific or Front, it was always from an exaggerated angle.
Now, here in 2026, the mermaid mural is no longer half hidden. It’s clearly visible from the newly configured Metro bus station, and it could very well be the first image that a newcomer arriving by bus will see of Santa Cruz, or the last one as they leave.
The Metro station as you remember it is gone. Now, the buses come and go only along Front Street. Where the Pacific Avenue bus entrance used to be now stands the seven-story Pacific Station North apartment building, offering close to 100 affordable rental units to a couple of hundred people who were living elsewhere back in ’22. The Metro station is roomier than it once was, with 22 bays for buses, up from 12, where the two-tone NIAC Building (Lookout’s current home) once stood. The Metro ticket office is now housed in the new building that fronts along Pacific. Looking south, opposite the mermaid mural, you’ll see what we used to call Maple Alley. It has been transformed into the Maple Paseo, a wide pedestrian-only boulevard connecting Pacific Avenue to the San Lorenzo River.
But we’ll see that later. For now, we’re going to walk north along Front Street, past the intersection with Cathcart all the way to Soquel Avenue. Looking behind you, you’ll notice that the high-rise buildings have created a kind of canyon effect common in bigger cities, and it’s from this perspective that you might not quite believe you’re still in Santa Cruz. For decades, the grand old Palomar Inn dominated the downtown skyline. No more. Now it has rivals.
‘Activating’ the river
We cross Front Street at Soquel Avenue and approach the river. For generations of Santa Cruzans, the San Lorenzo River has been an afterthought, obscured at line of sight by the enormous river levee. Businesses along Front Street have traditionally turned their backs on the river, literally. For most residents, the pathway along the river has been something to avoid, not particularly scenic, lonely, even a bit dangerous.
All that has changed — at least on the stretch between Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street. In the past, there have been efforts to “activate” the walkway along the river levee, with arts festivals and parades and calls for civic reengagement with the river. But nothing lasted, until now.
We’re approaching the brand-new Five 30 apartment building at Soquel and Front, and through signage and architectural design, it’s inviting us to walk up to the river levee. Five 30 is now the home to several hundred new Santa Cruzans, in its 276 apartments. As we walk up to the levee beside the eight-story Five 30, a series of columns, illuminated from the inside in the evening, leads us up past a large deck on which sit a number of tables under umbrellas at a corner cafe/restaurant on the riverwalk near the Soquel Avenue Bridge.
The vision here: “We want people to see that this is kind of the gateway leading to the Santa Cruz Riverwalk,” said the project’s manager, Jessie Bristow of Swenson Builders. “And we try to capture that with the restaurant deck, which will be open to the public, like a shared space similar to Abbott Square.”
The riverwalk then opens to a broad plaza, surrounded by trees and more umbrellas. Farther along, there’s even a small amphitheater right beside the pathway, with three levels of seating facing the river where we see people relaxing with a takeout lunch, or chatting with friends over coffee.
Walking south along the levee, we quickly come upon the massive Riverfront Apartment complex, made up of three separate buildings. We stroll past bicycle storage and parking to a spacious plaza that leads to a broad paseo, this one called the Cathcart Paseo, that separates the first building from the second. A large interactive water feature beckons us to the brick plaza and the steps back down to Front Street. But we’ll continue on to an open area designed for outdoor yoga classes and other gatherings in front of the complex’s middle building. Beyond that is a circular lawn, leading to yet another paseo that connects the riverwalk with Front Street.
There are a few people out, enjoying the shade trees, benches and raised planters on the wide, paved open space in front of the southernmost building. After years of not even thinking of the riverwalk as a place to hang out and enjoy a summer’s day, it might have taken time for Santa Cruzans to get used to the idea. Nevertheless, what developers and city planners have told the public throughout the long approval processes is that these riverside spaces adjoining the new buildings are all designed for public use, not for exclusive use of those who live in the buildings.
‘The California lifestyle’
Moving past the Riverfront complex, we can all see it looming just ahead: the imposing new Cruz Hotel, a 228-room hotel, perhaps the most ambitious and eye-popping of the new construction projects. The first new hotel in the downtown district in nearly a century, the Cruz Hotel has positioned itself in the middle price range between budget accommodations and luxury digs. In the public areas of the hotel along the riverfront, the theme, explains developer Stephen Chan of Eagle Point Hotels, one of the partners in the project, is “the California lifestyle,” with lots of indoor/outdoor spaces for drinks, meals or gatherings for both the hotel’s guests and Santa Cruz locals.
Approaching the hotel from the north along the river, we at first pass the Maple Paseo, the widest of the three passageways between Front Street and the river. We’ll come back this way later. The first thing you notice at the hotel’s far north end is a shady lawn area that leads to a large glassed-in ballroom. On nice-weather days, the ballroom fully opens in an indoor/outdoor style, its glass doors becoming more like disappearing walls.
“The whole hotel was designed around this idea that all the spaces — whether they’re rooms or restaurants or the lobby — can physically open up,” said Chris von Eckartsberg, the project’s architect. That open plan, he says, follows a kind of post-pandemic architectural mandate to open built spaces to outdoor air as much as possible.
Moving closer to the Laurel Street Bridge, we come to the hotel’s main restaurant, what Chan calls a “three-meals-a-day restaurant” in the same indoor/outdoor design. Just beyond the restaurant is the hotel’s bar, spilling out from the main second-floor lobby. A broad terrace offers tables, chairs, sofas and shade structures. It’s this outdoor terrace that the developers believe to be a kind of riverfront community hub and meeting place.
For guests, the hotel offers other amenities, including a rooftop bar and lounge adjoining a pool and garden. A level beneath the rooftop pool garden will be a Korean-style spa, perhaps the only amenity in the hotel not subject to the indoor/outdoor design aesthetic. The spa/bathhouse is designed for guests, but, Chan said, “We’re working to figure out how the public can access it, whether it’s a day pass or or some level of membership. We’d love to have the community be part of this.”
It’s all about the paseo
Heading back the opposite way on the newly revitalized riverwalk, we take a left at Maple Paseo on the north side of the hotel, heading back down to Front Street. You might have glimpsed its predecessor, Maple Alley, a much narrower passageway that had connected Front Street and Pacific Avenue and saw meager traffic in the old days.
On the hotel side of the paseo, adjoining the San Lorenzo, there is another cafe, with outdoor tables and chairs at street level. The hotel, said architect von Eckartsberg, “really has no back door. It’s a four-sided, public-facing project, and that’s a very tough thing to do.”
Down on Front, there is valet parking, a staircase leading up to the second-floor lobby, and another juice bar/bakery/cafe at the corner of Front and Laurel.
Of the three paseos leading up from Front Street to the river levee, the Maple Paseo is the only one that leads across Front Street, all the way to Pacific Avenue. As we cross Front, our magic time-machine bus awaits to our right at the Metro station. But to our left are two more new buildings, the Pacific Station South apartment building immediately in front of us, and the larger Pacific Front building just behind it. Both are housing, but the narrower Pac Station building is strictly affordable housing, while the bigger apartment building is market-rate rentals. Both were among the first to be built, with the Pacific Front condominium building rising up in mid-2022, on the site of well-known Taco Bell.
Along the paseo between Front and Pacific, strollers can check out retail shops along the ground floor of the Pac Station South building, with an anchor restaurant holding down the corner at Pacific Avenue. The Women’s Health Center clinic and the dentist offices of Dientes Community Dental Care share the second floor overlooking the 30-foot wide paseo.
Retail spaces also line the Pac North building facing Pacific Avenue. Ground-floor commercial space wraps around the Pacific Front building as well, alongside a couple of small outdoor plazas, to Laurel Street. That’s a lot of potential retail space for a city that, during the immediate post-pandemic years, had empty storefronts on nearly every block of its showcase downtown avenue. These businesses — populated as much as possible by women-owned and minority-owned enterprises per the city’s economic development guidelines — have appeared fitfully out of the end of the pandemic and a recession.
It’s time to climb back on board the time-machine Metro bus on our journey back to 2022. This pleasant stroll through downtown is hazy, like a dream. We couldn’t spend enough time here to determine whether all these new urban changes have robbed the city of its personality and moved Santa Cruz closer to San Jose in feel and tone, or if that cheeky, defiant, hard-to-quantify Santa Cruz spirit will instead inhabit or somehow brand the new development in its distinctive way.
But as we leave 2026 on our return trip to the present, the only sure bet is that we will arrive at that future in due time. How the reality will deviate from the dream is anyone’s guess.
Downtown Santa Cruz developments glossary
The following is a rundown of the proposed and approved construction projects for the downtown district between Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street, along Pacific Avenue and Front Street. These projects are in the various stages of what promises to be a long process, and some details — including the names of the projects — could change. Addresses are approximate.
Projected opening dates are variable and subject to change. “Under construction” means building is now taking place. “Approved” means the project’s building permit has been issued and groundbreaking is imminent. “Applied” refers to the planning and entitlement stages in which developers and city planners are working out construction and design details to comply with city building codes and restrictions, and that planning commission or city council approval is yet to happen. “Proposed” means the early stages of the design and application process.
For the housing projects, “affordable” is a term that means a deed-restricted limit on rents based on a percentage of area median income (AMI) for a given region.
“Low-income affordable” means that rents cannot exceed 80% of AMI. “Very low-income” is 50%cof AMI. And “extremely low-income” is below 30% of AMI. Santa Cruz County’s AMI is $119,300. “Market-rate” is a term denoting rents that are not restricted by state or federal guidelines for affordability.
Pacific Station South
Address: 818 Pacific Ave. (also includes 820, 822 Pacific, and 325, 329 Front St.)
Purpose: 70 units of affordable rental housing. Mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. Rental apartments, third through seventh floors. Building front oriented toward adjoining Maple Alley “paseo,” reaching from Pacific Avenue to Front Street. Second floor to be new home to Women’s Health Center, sharing with dentist offices of Dientes Community Dental Care. First-floor retail space on Pacific Avenue and along 30-foot-wide Maple Paseo, including anchor restaurant on the corner.
Status: Under construction.
Estimated opening: Summer/fall 2023.
Developer: For the Future Housing Inc., San Jose.
Size: Height is 83.5 feet, 7 stories. Square footage is 96,796.
Planner: Samantha Haschert, email@example.com
Pacific Station North
Address: 900 block of Pacific Avenue.
Purpose: 94 units of affordable rental housing, mixed-use, One-, two- and three-bedrooms, to include new Metro bus hub with 22 bus bays with entrance/exit on Front Street. Apartment building fronts along Pacific Avenue with retail space at street level and along adjoining Maple Paseo to the south, will include Metro ticket office.
Estimated opening: Summer 2024.
Developer: First Community Housing, San Jose.
Size: Height is 85 feet, 7 stories. Square footage is 136,111.
Planner: Ryan Bane, firstname.lastname@example.org
Anton Pacific/Pacific Front
Address: 100 Laurel St., between Pacific and Front. (Also 802-812 Pacific Ave. and 305-313 Front St.)
Purpose: 205 units, market-rate rentals, 230 parking spaces, with three to five floors of residential apartments, two levels of parking. First floor commercial and retail space.
Status: Under construction.
Estimated opening: Summer 2023.
Developer: Anton Santa Cruz, LLC.
Size: Maximum height is 78 feet, 6 stories. Square footage is 313,456.
Planner: Samantha Haschert, email@example.com
Five 30 Front
Address: 530 Front St.
Purpose: Apartment complex offers 276 units, studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom — 239 market-rate and 37 affordable (low-income and very low-income) housing units. 185 parking spaces and six commercial units including riverfront bar/restaurant. Roof deck and garden.
Status: Applied. Developers working with city planners, with next step to bring submittal before planning commission and city council.
Estimated opening: Groundbreaking early 2024, opening 2026.
Developer: Swenson Builders, Santa Cruz.
Size: Maximum height is 89 feet, 8 stories. Square footage is 230,975.
Planner: Clara Stanger, firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: 324 Front St.
Purpose: A 228-room hotel in the moderate price range, approximately $250 per night rate with seasonal variation. Amenities along the San Lorenzo River walk include indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar, and retail/cafe/restaurant space along Laurel Street, Front Street and the adjoining Maple Paseo with stairs to the riverwalk.
Status: Applied, in the entitlements phase with modified plans to be resubmitted to city planners.
Estimated opening: Groundbreaking late 2023, opening 2025.
Developer: SCFS Venture LLC, New York.
Size: Maximum height is 70 feet, 6 stories. Square footage is 153,601.
Planner: Ryan Bane, email@example.com
Front Street/Riverfront Project
Address: 412-508 Front St.
Purpose: Three-building condominium complex with 175 units, including 20 low-income affordable units, 168 parking spots. Three buildings separated by two paseo throughways from Front Street to the San Lorenzo Riverwalk at Elm Street and Cathcart Street.
Status: Approved. Building permit under review.
Estimated opening: Late 2023.
Developer: SC Riverfront LLC, Santa Cruz.
Size: Maximum height is 85 feet, 7 stories. Square footage is 204,496.
Planner: Samantha Haschert, firstname.lastname@example.org