Which way to the beach? After decades of talking about it, Santa Cruz is finally poised to connect downtown to the beach

Swenson's proposed Calypso Apartments will bring hundreds of new Santa Cruzans to lower Center Street across from Depot Park.
Swenson’s proposed Calypso Apartments will bring hundreds of new Santa Cruzans to lower Center Street, just across from the soccer field at Depot Park.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Making the transition from downtown to the beach seamless has been a goal of city leaders for years, and now Santa Cruz is poised to convert the area south of Laurel Street into a busy, pedestrian-friendly part of town, similar to a few blocks north. A new housing complex on Center Street is to be called Calypso, a six-story building with more than 200 units of market-rate and affordable housing.

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From the heart of downtown Santa Cruz to Main Beach, it’s only about a 15-minute walk, give or take. But for years, decades even, a kind of psychological barrier has existed between downtown and the beach — at least from an urban planning perspective.

For many locals, the downtown shopping district generally ends at Laurel Street. As you walk to the wharf, you’ll notice that the pedestrian count south of Laurel falls off significantly. For reasons having to do with zoning, urban design and simple geography, Pacific Avenue downtown and Beach Street have always seemed like two separate realms. Visitors to Santa Cruz are often confused about how to even get from one to the other.

That is all about to change. After years of talking about making that transition from downtown to the beach seamless, the city of Santa Cruz is poised to convert the south-of-Laurel area into a busy, pedestrian-friendly part of town, similar to a few blocks north.

Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s director of economic development, said that the barrier between the beach and downtown has been part of the city’s layout since she began working for the city more than a decade ago.

“It was confusing for me,” she said. “Santa Cruz is well known for its beautiful beaches. It has an amazing downtown. But navigating between the two is challenging, and looking at that area between the beach and the downtown has always been an opportunity: How can you connect to the best places — our wonderful beaches and West Cliff — how do you connect those to the core part of the city’s downtown?”

Much of that planning, of course, depends on the fate of the Downtown Plan Expansion, still in its conceptual stages, which is grappling with the possible construction of an arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors and more housing nearby. But the corridor from downtown to the beach extends beyond that area, all the way to the traffic circle adjacent to Depot Park.

The city's Downtown Plan Expansion looks to develop the corridor that connects downtown Santa Cruz to the beach.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

The transformation is gradual, but noticeable. The four-year-old Five55 apartment building at Pacific and Front has spawned a couple of new businesses, including the Big Basin Vineyards tasting room and Iveta Downtown. And within the next couple of years another multistory apartment building will open a block to the west on Center Street, directly across the street from the Scott Kennedy Fields at Depot Park.

Taken together, it amounts to a push to extend downtown all the way to the ocean.

“That’s a key project objective for the Downtown Plan Extension,” said Lee Butler, the city’s director of planning. “As we’re getting new development in that area, it’s expanding the downtown toward the beach. And, at the same time, we’re thinking through the best ways to provide visual connections and physical connections between the beach area and downtown.”

The new housing complex on Center Street is to be called Calypso, a six-story building with more than 200 units of market-rate and affordable housing. Groundbreaking is not imminent on Calypso, even though the city has approved the project. Swenson Builders’ Jessie Bristow is the manager of the Calypso project, and he said that his company is, for now, waiting for more favorable economic conditions — read: lower interest rates — before beginning construction. (Swenson also built the Five55 project and is the developer of another project in the works on the San Lorenzo River at Front Street and Soquel Avenue.) Still, Calypso is a kind of stake in the ground for new development in a part of town that hasn’t seen much of it.

“When you have places that are walkable,” said Bristow, “and you have people living above them, generally it’s going to create that activity for restaurants and retail, and that vibrancy.”

For years, that area of Pacific Avenue was zoned for, among other things, car dealers and repair shops. Calypso itself will stand on a parcel that once housed an auto-body shop. A Hertz car rental shop is still there on Center Street and will presumably be the new apartment building’s neighbor.

The Calypso will be studio apartments, so it will attract more singles and couples than families. “We anticipate that about half the population would probably be students, and then perhaps some young professionals and couples,” said Bristow.

The building is designed in a Spanish colonial style, complete with a bell tower. “We felt that Spanish architecture was a little more in keeping with what was already there,” said Bristow. “And so we just embraced that more so than trying to pick a different architectural style.”

As for the Downtown Plan Expansion in the area south of Laurel, Butler said the city is planning to conduct more community outreach to take the next step, perhaps with an in-person or live event later this summer. “Following that,” he said, “that’s really when we’re going to be doing a lot of the things related to design details and themes.”

Lipscomb said that the Downtown Plan Expansion will also include other ways to open up downtown to the beach and vice versa, including perhaps a public plaza.

“The other thing for that area that we’re looking at as well,” said Lipscomb, “is the Riverwalk. That’s another pedestrian route to take from the beach. We have a [request for proposals] out now for a financial consultant to really look at the needed infrastructure in that area, and different ways we might be able to finance that infrastructure on the Riverwalk as well as in a future public plaza area that would be in that south-of-Laurel area. And that can be another great amenity that helps sort of tie that in both to the downtown and the beach to have that public gathering space.”

“You gotta start somewhere,” said Swenson’s Bristow. “It’s step-by-step at this point. Hopefully, whatever happens with the Downtown Plan Expansion, and whatever happens with the Warriors, I’m excited to see how that action will come to fruition.”

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