By Downtown Commons Advocates
The Farmers’ Market is presently held at the last sizeable publicly-owned open space in the center of Santa Cruz – Parking Lot 4. Imagine two alternatives for the future. In one, a six-story mixed-use garage/ library/housing structure would contribute to the heatisland effect, and it would violate the 2017 Downtown Plan’s goal to “preserve and enhance the informal ‘village’ qualities of the Cedar Street Corridor.” Alternatively, Lot 4 could become a Downtown Commons – a permanent open space designed to accommodate the Farmers’ Market, the Antique Faire, and community events.
Our City Council will face this fundamental choice in the months ahead. For the long term, the better of the two alternatives is to create a Downtown Commons on Lot 4.
The out-of-scale mixeduse plan for Lot 4 gained support when an appointed adhoc citizen library advisory committee deemed that Measure S bond funds were insufficient to fully renovate the existing library. They hoped that putting the library in a garage would avoid significantly overspending what was then the $23 million (now $28 million) Measure S budget. However, it has become evident that additional money beyond Measure S funds would be required for library construction even in a garage. One proposal is to use Parking District funds to make up the shortfall. But the city could just as easily not build the garage, and put some of the millions saved into the library.
Having a state-of-the-art library and a town commons are not mutually exclusive goals. But the proposed mixeduse project is based on neither solid planning nor smart politics. Projected parking demand is insufficient to justify paying $87 million ($2.9 million a year for 30 years) for a garage. That plan clings to an outmoded approach to parking and it would fail any cost-benefit analysis. We can do better in an era of climate crisis by offering support for people getting downtown by means other than single- occupant autos. And politically, the public is too divided for the City to embark on such a controversial and expensive project. Even downtown business owners disagree about the proposal.
Santa Cruz should avoid a “cut and paste” approach of moving the library from the Civic Center and sticking it in a catch-all structure at Lot 4. As the City Council recognized by appointing a Downtown Library Subcommittee, the community is best served if the library project proceeds soon. That goal is jeopardized by linking it with a garage and housing project. Both the public controversy and significant financial, planning, Environmental Impact, affordable housing, and other requirements create obstacles to basic project design and approval. Given these realities, it would be extremely challenging to complete the library/garage within Measure S construction time limits (July 2024).There are some who claim that Parking Lot 4 will inevitably be developed by someone for something. They cite an “opportunity cost” if the six-story structure is not built. But Lot 4 is public property; it does not “have” to be built on. The opposite opportunity cost is much larger: if mixed use building construction proceeds, the site will be lost forever as a public open space. No one will deconstruct a parking garage to create a park.Forward-looking cities around the country are working to create more vital downtowns. By engaging in “place making,” they are establishing vibrant and safe open public spaces that serve as anchor points for retail businesses, restaurants, housing, and community life. Now is the time for Santa Cruz to follow suit.Santa Cruz can make the Farmers’ Market a permanent part of a Downtown Commons where people gather to shop, eat, play, listen to music, and meet friends. That seems far better than losing it to a multistory structure that literally cements in place a downtown where people are hemmed in by buildings. Creating a Downtown Commons on Lot 4 can reverse Joni Mitchell’s lament – unpaving the parking lot will create a little more paradise.
Downtown Commons Advocates is a group of business and community members advocating for a public commons and permanent home to the Farmers Market at its current location in Downtown Santa Cruz. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page at //fb.me/ SantaCruzDCA.
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