Quick Take:

The historic Palomar building has long towered over downtown Santa Cruz, at almost 90 feet — and set a precedent for height. Now, in the massive Lower Pacific and Lower Front redevelopment plans, the city council is moving ahead with plans for four buildings twice as tall, in order to help build 1,600 units of housing quickly. How will the idea play in changing Santa Cruz?

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What is becoming a massive redevelopment project — the revitalization of the Lower Pacific and Lower Front areas in downtown Santa Cruz — took another step forward Tuesday.

The Santa Cruz City Council gave the city planning staff the go-ahead to draw up increasingly specific plans for the Downtown Plan Expansion project, plans that are already creating one of the next big debates — should the city move forward with 15- and 17-story high-rises? — about what the Santa Cruz of the future will look like.

Currently most visible to observers in that area is the fast-rising, seven-story commercial and residential building at the corner of Front and Laurel streets. That building — familiar to many as the site of a well-known Taco Bell, among other businesses — is actually part of the Downtown Plan Area, starting at Laurel Street and including Front Street and Pacific Avenue to Water Street.

The action at the council focuses on the area to the south of that new building; that’s the Downtown Plan Expansion project, as shown on the adjacent map.

The area stretches south from Laurel Street, down Front Street, and just around the roundabout where Center and Front streets connect. It includes both the current Kaiser Permanente Arena, where the Santa Cruz Warriors play, and a new proposed — and now “preferred” — location for a permanent hoops home across the street from KP. On Tuesday, the council also adopted that preferred location recommended by the city staff, on parcel C1, as shown on the map, of land between Front Street, Spruce Street and Pacific Avenue.

While basketball might have prompted recent headlines, it is new housing — and lots of it — that’s front and center in the redevelopment area. With Santa Cruz having woken up to its acute housing shortage and top-five showing in “least affordability” rankings nationally, city planners now focus on creating about 1,600 new housing units in the expansion plan area.

On Tuesday, the council pushed forward, giving increased direction to city planners who will now create more specific plans and assessments for the project. City planning staff estimate that it will take nine months to a year to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) and full draft of the redevelopment project.

The council’s discussion prompted comments from the public at the meeting, and as the plans become more well-known, they are sure to generate higher-pitched debate.

Expect that debate to focus, in part, on the sheer scale and height of the proposed housing development Santa Cruz. Four high-rise sites, among a number of new buildings in the redevelopment plan, allow for buildings to reach heights from 150 feet at three of those sites and no more than 175 feet at the remaining site. That’s roughly 15 to 18 stories high. That’s not a “skyscraper” by most standards — that term usually describes buildings of 40-plus floors — but by Santa Cruz standards, that description, offered by a critic at the city council meeting, could stick.

Those 15 to 18 stories would be as much as twice the size of the historic Palomar building on Pacific Avenue, which clocks in at 86.3 feet.

Height requirements have been the subject of debate in recent years. Recently, they have been set in the range of 85 feet as development plans have gone forward — so these new guidelines indicate a big departure for the city, part of its reckoning of how to get a lot of housing built, and quickly.

“It is shockingly different from anything we’ve ever done in Santa Cruz,” city councilmember Donna Myers, who put forward the motion, told Lookout Thursday. “This is a departure from the existing height and zoning right now, and I think the potential opportunity to have the Warriors as an anchor piece along with this new state requirement all added up and that’s why you end up with these heights.”

She stressed tall buildings may be the best shot to provide the many housing units Santa Cruz needs. She cautions that such buildings are far from being built at this point.

“The skyscraper is going to be studied, and it may never come to be,” she said. “But what we’re grappling with is the state of California is requiring us to build over 3,000 units of housing in the next eight years, and you can’t build that much housing in single family zoning.”

Still, Meyers acknowledges how big of a change this is for the city and believes that this is the most pivotal project in the city over the last 40 years.

She expects people to be surprised, but wants residents to understand the project’s goal.

“I think people will be surprised, Santa Cruz is used to being a pretty small town with a certain skyline that it values, and so do I, but we need to weigh the community’s opinion with how we try to help people find a way to live here,” she said.

How did this change in building height seem to almost double overnight?

Matt VanHua, the city’s principal planner, explains it straightforwardly: The council asked staff how it could build 1,600 to 1,800 housing units in the redevelopment area, given that area’s footprint. To meet that goal, planners say high-rises are the best approach.

“This is going to be a huge shift, and my initial motion that I didn’t get to put out was actually going to go for 130 feet,” Councilmember Justin Cummings told Lookout on Wednesday. “When 165 [feet, the number that became 175 feet in the council-approved motion] was chosen, I thought we could compromise so long as we committed to maximizing affordability, and when that didn’t happen it was difficult for me to support.”

Cummings ended up voting against adopting the updated plan, along with Councilmember Sandy Brown, but their no votes were based on the lack of affordability requirements rather than height.

Cummings realizes the big change such tall buildings will mean for Santa Cruz.

“This is going to be approached with great caution, because I would imagine there are a lot of people who aren’t aware what is happening, and there will be questions about who this is for,” he said. “There will be some who want to see us build really tall buildings, and a large contingency of people who will not be so happy, and the council will have to grapple with how they meet the needs of the community and address those concerns.”

The height requirements have already been contentious within the city government itself.

The planning staff had recommended a maximum building height of 50 to 85 feet in general in the redevelopment area, with up to five buildings from 145 to 225 feet permitted, partly in response to the city’s planning commission. That commission said in May that 90 feet — about the height of the Palomar building — should be the maximum.

As city staff wrote in its response to the planning commission, in disagreement, “Limiting height in this way could create tall and blocky buildings, which is not a preferred building form above seven stories of height. Taller building elements are an important element of this plan, not just for housing, but also for good urban design and creating a new center of gravity that attracts people and business to the downtown.”

The council adopted the new guidance and new height limitations after significant debate. Responding to the planning staff recommendation, it reduced the number of high-rise sites from five to four, and decreased the maximum building height to no more than 150 feet at three of those sites and no more than 175 feet at the remaining site.

At the meeting, Meyers said that the lowering of the maximum heights for the sites with taller buildings was in response to community sentiment.

We won’t meet our housing needs if the community fights against a plan with buildings that seem too tall for many people in the community. Please don’t be afraid to allow some buildings to be significantly taller than eight stories. We don’t need to be stuck with the 100-year-old, eight-story Palomar building as our standard forever. We have new needs and I hope we adapt to those needs. — Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane

“Building large buildings is atypical and intimidating to our community, and I share the feeling of wanting to maintain a certain character in our downtown,” she said.

VanHua told Lookout on Wednesday that city planning staff landed on these numbers through various methods of community outreach.

“Staff went through a public process with a survey, online activities, and more to allow residents to submit revisions and ideas for downtown and the expansion area,” he said. “Based on that, the planning team came up with a set of different scenarios.”

And these height numbers are far from set in stone, VanHua says.

“We have the go-ahead to study the scenario with these numbers in mind, and figure out what’s possible when the EIR comes together,” he said.

The debate at the meeting

The plan was met with both excited support and predictable opposition from locals tuned in to the Zoom meeting.

Proponents believe this is a major opportunity for economic growth and revitalization.

Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce CEO Casey Beyer said this must be viewed as a chance to make a better future for people living in Santa Cruz.

“We’re not living in the 1970s,” he said. “We’re looking at the future of downtown and expansion will happen, and you have the opportunity as a city council to move forward with a great opportunity for economic vitality.”

Downtown Santa Cruz
Downtown Santa Cruz Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane said city planning needs to find a “sweet spot” for building height, but that at the end of the day, residents have to understand that the city needs more housing.

“We won’t meet our housing needs if the community fights against a plan with buildings that seem too tall for many people in the community,” he said. “Please don’t be afraid to allow some buildings to be significantly taller than eight stories. We don’t need to be stuck with the 100-year-old, eight-story Palomar building as our standard forever. We have new needs and I hope we adapt to those needs.”

Pushback was largely centered around the height of the buildings, inadequate public outreach, and traffic concerns.

Beach Hill resident Philip Rosenblum complained of poor public outreach and expressed concerns regarding the building heights and the project’s impact for area residents.

“Does this really benefit locals? If you want to widen streets, if you want to build plazas, walkways, and plant trees, absolutely. Does that have to go hand in hand with building skyscrapers?” he said, adding that he and his neighbors had not heard about this project. “I don’t know how I feel about this yet, but I’m shocked that this has been in the works for a year.”

Gillian Greensite said that while she wants the Warriors to stay in town, the plan seems unsustainable.

“The RHNA [regional housing needs allocation, stating how much housing needs to be built for the area] numbers are alarming; however, the city has the option to push back and appeal the numbers which are unrealistic and are guaranteed to transform our town, and be unsustainable,” she said. “We do not need more market-rate housing. We’ve already provided more than the required amount.”

She also disagreed with Senior Planner Sarah Neuse’s comment that Santa Cruz will have an actual skyline when the project is complete.

“We do have a skyline,” she said. “It’s beautiful cliffs, trees, and sunsets. These buildings are totally out of place.”

Cummings, while supportive of the Warriors and appreciative of the lowering of the building heights, expressed concern over having enough affordable housing.

As a result, he proposed an amended motion that would require at least one-third of the new housing units be affordable to low- and very-low-income households and that a committee of residents and affordable housing experts be formed to study and suggest impact mitigation measures.

The amended motion failed 4-2, with only Brown and Cummings voting in favor.

Meyers’ view on the inclusion of affordable housing differ.

“I think there was misinformation that this will not have affordable housing, but that is absolutely not true. It’s important that the public understand that this is not some fancy market rate project to create tall buildings.”

Cummings says that going forward, community input is the most important thing.

“When it comes to the building heights, it is really up to what the community wants regardless of what I’m comfortable with,” he said. “My responsibility is to represent this community, which is why outreach is critical.”

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...