Nightmare or riverfront nirvana — or somewhere in between? What’s the next Santa Cruz going to feel like?

The Anton project at Laurel and Front is only the first of several new major construction projects in the area.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Quick, describe the vibe that characterizes what the one-of-a-kind place that is Santa Cruz is known to be. Now, as the housing construction boom begins to change the landscape of downtown, angst is growing about the displacement of the old and the coming of the new. Will downtown’s dramatic facelift obliterate that special Santa Cruz something? Or will the Santa Cruz spirit — however you might define it — in time inhabit the new city now emerging?

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Someone is scribbling on the sidewalks of Santa Cruz.

Since at least last fall, someone has been chalk-writing on downtown sidewalks, mostly in the run-up to last November’s controversial new library measure, but quite a bit since then as well. The chalk-writer’s viewpoint is no mystery. It comes down hard against the proposed new downtown library/mixed-use project, and against downtown development generally, painting it as a blind money grab that will suffocate all that is good and groovy about Santa Cruz. The bad guys in these chalky manifestos are, to use a half-clever polemical pun, “devil-opers,” probably from some soulless Babylon like San Jose.

Dissent against the development of downtown has taken the form of chalk drawings on the sidewalk.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

To whatever degree these literal word-on-the-street diatribes conform (or do not conform) to reality, they are representations of a generalized anxiety that many locals feel about the volume of new construction that is going on in downtown Santa Cruz. Natives and longtime residents as well have an intuitive sense of a distinctive aura or personality that separates Santa Cruz from other midsized California coastal cities. And, for a lot of folks, that unique vibe is as delicate as a spider’s web.

So, as a half-dozen buildings rise to form a new skyline, and several more move through the planning process, with several hundred new residents and a new orientation to the San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruzans are pondering a question with no empirical answer: Will downtown’s dramatic new facelift obliterate that special Santa Cruz something? Or will the Santa Cruz spirit — however you might define it — in time inhabit the new city now emerging?

The force behind these transformational changes to downtown Santa Cruz is, of course, California’s unprecedented push to address the ever-worsening housing crisis statewide. City officials will tell you that the building boom is, for the most part, merely Santa Cruz’s response to the state mandate to create more housing, dramatically changing course from a decadeslong ethic of no growth or slow growth. And there are only two ways to build such housing: out or up. The former means sprawl and possible conversion of agricultural lands, and faces an especially entrenched resistance to growth in the neighborhoods. That means the only option is up, and that means tall buildings in the downtown core.

Santa Cruz artist Russell Brutsche
Santa Cruz artist Russell Brutsche makes his viewpoint known about the changes in Santa Cruz with his exaggerated and pointed paintings.
(Via Russell Brutsche)

Amid all the disruptions and hassles of construction, and the questions about exactly how much these new units will really affect the price of housing, there is the legitimate question — perhaps the dominant question — how much will all this “density,” to engage in city-planner speak, change the character of Santa Cruz? Are concerns about design and aesthetics as important as the need to address the housing crisis? What is the next Santa Cruz going to look like and feel like?

Many with a stake in downtown Santa Cruz are alarmed. One person on the Nextdoor social media site recently posted: “What a nightmare this is going to be … While traveling on business last week in Southern California, people talked about how much they admired Santa Cruz for the small town vibe. I told them they better come and visit before it’s ruined.”

Artist Russell Brutsche — a longtime Santa Cruzan well known for his painting and his original music — has created a series of paintings that captures that sense of apocalyptic folly. Brutsche’s vivid and arresting images feature a Santa Cruz choked with traffic and dominated by boxy, generic skyscrapers with rooftop swimming pools and helipads for the super wealthy. (His work on the subject, titled “Hi-Rise Santa Cruz” can be seen at Wallflower during the next First Friday, June 2.) Brutsche’s work uses humor and exaggeration to make a point, but it’s a point he’s serious about.

“I just question the classic knee-jerk fix, on not just housing but anything, that says, ‘When in doubt, build more stuff,’” he said. In fact, Brutsche suspects that the new downtown housing will mostly benefit “YIMBY techies” and real-estate developers rather than teachers, service workers and middle-class folks in desperate need of housing. (In fact, market-rate rentals will outnumber state-defined “affordable” units in the new downtown buildings by roughly 2-to-1.)

From low-slung to high-rise

Former five-term Santa Cruz mayor and city councilmember Mike Rotkin said he has some sympathy for those fearing that the new development will undermine Santa Cruz’s unique personality. And he agrees with the viewpoint that the new housing will have little to no significant effect on lowering housing prices generally. But, he said, change is coming to Santa Cruz, and those who lament those changes should focus on managing it rather than trying to stop it.

“Let’s say that you really, really want Santa Cruz to stay small,” said Rotkin, “the way it used to be. There was a time when that was a feasible strategy, that you might have accomplished your goals. But what’s happened now is that the state has stepped in.”

Rotkin, in fact, raises another possibility that, for many, is more frightening than even Russell Brutsche’s most lurid 1-percenter visions: If Santa Cruz doesn’t act to meet the state’s mandate, he said, the state could come in and build the kind of basic housing projects that in the 1970s were erected in places like New York and Chicago and are now almost universally thought of as urban blight. “The end result of that,” he said, “would be rectangular boxes.”

The height of the new buildings can be intimidating, and there’s no finessing the fact that Santa Cruz is evolving away from low-slung architecture to a more high-rise look. Most of the new buildings will be in the range of 80-plus-feet tall.

The new housing development going up at Cedar Street near the Calvary Church.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The city and the various developers involved are also bringing several elements of design to bear on all the new construction, ostensibly for the benefits of residents and locals. The design of the new buildings themselves reflect, to some degree, community concerns about mass and scale. For example, the just-broken-ground Riverfront Apartments development on Front Street features three side-by-side buildings separate by open plazas, rather than a single large building.

The city is also designing a series of new “paseos,” wide pedestrian avenues between and adjacent to the new buildings. And most important, those new paseos are designed in a way to lead visitors to the riverwalk along the San Lorenzo River levee.

The architecture of the businesses along Front Street is — whether it was consciously designed that way or not — a representation of the city turning its back to the river. Unconsciously perhaps, that created a neglected and dismal environment behind the buildings on Front. Going forward, the three separate new developments between Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street will make that disconnect with the river a thing of the past. The levee’s riverwalk will be developed as a welcoming thoroughfare for pedestrians and bicyclists, with adjoining cafes, restaurants, green spaces and other amenities.

The Santa Cruz checkerboard

Santa Cruz architect and former city councilmember Mark Primack has little patience for many who resort to calling a downtown that doesn’t exist yet “ugly.” Primack said that, in his experience, people who grew up in Santa Cruz are much more tolerant of change than people who moved here as adults, whether in the recent or not-so-recent past.

It’s also possible, even likely, that however generic the new construction might look and feel, that ineffable Santa Cruz vibe will eventually shape it and brand it with an only-in-Santa-Cruz eccentricity. Perhaps it’s in the retail businesses that occupy the ground floor of the new housing developments. Perhaps it’s in the paseos, or the public art.

“We don’t really care about design in this town,” said Primack. “What we care about is keeping things the way they were the day we arrived. NIMBYism thrives in a transient community.”

Professionals in architecture and urban planning at times can express frustration with arguments on aesthetics. People with little or no training in such fields can often feel entitled to pronounce opinions on whether something is beautiful or ugly.

“Is your aesthetic about scale?” said Primack. “Do you think a building that’s five stories is ugly no matter what it is? Can you show me a picture of a five-story building that you think is beautiful? Probably not. So when people talk about aesthetics, what are you actually talking about?”

Downtown Santa Cruz
Downtown Santa Cruz is in the beginning stages of a transformation. Will all the new housing construction obliterate the city’s unique personality?
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So does Santa Cruz have a distinctive architectural style? Carey Casey says it depends on where you’re standing in the city. Casey is the editor of “The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture,” which in April released its first new edition since 2005. For example, said Casey, the devastating floods of Santa Cruz in 1955 led to a wave of new development incongruent with the rest of the town’s look.

“[The reconstruction] began at Front Street, and was basically the whole square between Front and Ocean and Water and Soquel,” Casey said. “They basically bulldozed everything in there except for the post office and the veterans hall, on both sides of the river and they rebuilt everything. So everything in that area looks like mid’ 60s when Brutalism was a big thing — like the county government center.”

Santa Cruz’s mishmash style is never better expressed than in Abbott Square, where the 19th-century artifact locals call “the Octagon” is right across Cooper Street from the 1894 Leonard Building, but is otherwise surrounded by the radically different aesthetic of the buildings built a century later.

The Octagon is the gateway to bustling Abbott Square.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s now really a kind of checkerboard,” said Casey of downtown’s architecture and its different eras.

Princeton-trained architect Frank Zwart spent close to 40 years as the chief architect at UC Santa Cruz, which, in terms of architecture and design, is a fundamentally different environment than downtown Santa Cruz. Unlike on campus, it would be impractical to expect any kind of thematic architectural consistency in a city like Santa Cruz.

“As time goes,” said Zwart, “both architectural styles and building technologies change. And as a result, the buildings out of any decade are different from each other. And given that Santa Cruz has been around over 100 years, it would be surprising if it were entirely coherent.”

Still, artist Russell Brutsche sees at least some consistency: “I’m on thin ice here,” he said. “I’m not an architect by any means. But if you consider Piedmont Court, London Nelson, city courthouse, the post office, Gabriella’s, and what is now the Jamba Juice building, it seems like there’s a continuum going on. And if you try to stick in the new buildings at Laurel and Front and the Calvary parking lot, they sure stand out.”

Lessons from Loma Prieta

If there was ever a single iconic building in Santa Cruz, it was the grand old Cooper House, at Cooper Street and Pacific Avenue, which inspired the design of the lush, tree-lined Pacific Garden Mall. But the Cooper House and the mall were both destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

If there is a single period that was as transformative as the current era in terms of downtown redevelopment, it was the years following that earthquake. It not only represented the rebuilding of a devastated downtown, but a pronounced repudiation of the pre-quake Santa Cruz. It replaced the meandering, Dionysian Pacific Avenue of the mall, which was designed to mimic a river, with the Apollonian straight lines of the Pacific Avenue we know today.

Mike Rotkin was part of the group Vision Santa Cruz, a group of 36 city leaders who came together after the earthquake to guide and manage the rebuilding of downtown. Obviously, it was a much different situation than what confronts Santa Cruz today. The earthquake dictated what was to be rebuilt and where, not city planners and developers. But that period had its share of worry and anxiety from locals, convinced that the city was going to obliterate the character of the city.

“People don’t remember this now,” said Rotkin. “People now go, ‘Oh, downtown’s so great. We don’t want to destroy downtown.’ Back then, people fought like hell to not have this downtown. ‘Three stories? Oh, it’s going to be like San Francisco. It’s going to be ugly. It’s going to be horrible. We’ll be walking through a canyon. There will be no sun on the sidewalks.’ But we ended up doing the right thing — wide sidewalks on the east side [of Pacific Avenue] so the west side sun comes through and you can have sidewalk cafes and such. Setbacks so you don’t see a third floor when you’re walking down the street. Design matters.”

Russell Brutsche’s vivid paintings represent an anxiety that Santa Cruz is losing its soul in the rush to build.
(Via Russell Brutsche)

The collective anxiety about downtown’s development may be partly a function of height. Santa Cruz is not a town of tall buildings like, for instance, Santa Monica (which is caught in its own cycle of controversy about new housing construction). But the Palomar building on Pacific Avenue, which is the county’s tallest, is 90 feet high, and none of the buildings, at least on the Front Street corridor, are going to exceed that height. Santa Cruz is not the kind of place that would ever adopt some kind of strictly controlled, theme-park coherence like Carmel or Santa Barbara. Perhaps, the heart of the anxiety that many Santa Cruzans feel is a fear of the generic, the surrender to the bland conformity that seems to characterize so many American cities, a no-style style often derisively referred to as “McUrbanism” or “Spongebuild Squareparts.” The basis of that movement is what’s known as the “five-over-one,” a concrete, ground-floor base, supporting several stories of wood-framed construction. Contemporary building codes and the unforgiving economics of development devolve inevitably toward the five-over-one structure. And, indeed, much of the new construction in Santa Cruz conforms to that design.

Distinctive cities like San Francisco or New Orleans were built before strict building codes were the norm. “I’m sure that if you asked anybody in Santa Cruz to identify a building or business, a place that they really personifies the spirit of Santa Cruz, guaranteed, it’s ‘existing nonconforming,’” said Mark Primack. “‘Existing nonconforming’ is a phrase used for ‘Well, that was in before we had the rules,’ or it happened without people getting permits or whatever. So what the irony is that the most interesting architecture in Santa Cruz is stuff that didn’t play by the rules.”

It’s also possible, even likely, that however generic the new construction might look and feel, that ineffable Santa Cruz vibe will eventually shape it and brand it with an only-in-Santa-Cruz eccentricity. Perhaps it’s in the retail businesses that occupy the ground floor of the new housing developments. Perhaps it’s in the paseos, or the public art.

“I think there’s a potential that it will ‘Keep Santa Cruz Weird,’” said Frank Zwart, evoking a 1990s-era bumper-sticker buzz phrase about the city’s one-of-a-kind culture. “I’ve known for years that Santa Cruz is at the epicenter of surf culture. But I just hadn’t realized the degree to which it was also at the epicenter of skateboard culture as well. It’s all that kind of quirky homegrown stuff that I think can get into the corners.”

Ultimately, what matters more than the architecture coming to Santa Cruz is the people coming to Santa Cruz, whether the new residents of the market-rate and affordable units are outsiders ignorant of the unique culture here, or Santa Cruz homegrowns coming back to a town that had priced them out.

“When you focus only on aesthetics,” said Primack, “you’re missing the point of what makes a city a great city, or town a great town. The point is that it’s people who make a town a great town. It’s the enterprising people who are there, and the lives that they’re living. That makes a town interesting.”


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