Cover Stories

Santa Cruz Squared

GT1522 coverThe first phase of the huge Abbott Square renovation project will be unveiled this week. Will it be the answer to Santa Cruz’s public-space problems?

Several times a week, I eat lunch on a curb on Lincoln Street. It’s a high curb, but I’m pretty sure it still qualifies as a curb. It’s not that I want to eat on a curb, it’s just that it’s the best place I’ve found to sit down, get some fresh air, and watch Santa Cruz go by. On Wednesdays, the adjacent parking lot becomes a thriving public space with the farmers market, people eating and visiting, musicians, and kids dancing. But, like Brigadoon, it vanishes at the end of the day.

Architect Mark Primack, a Santa Cruz planning commissioner and former City Council member, says Santa Cruz has unique challenges when it comes to public space. He argues that we have a climate that’s not conducive to long hours spent hanging out in outdoor public spaces—especially in the evening. There’s also the fact that many people who work in Santa Cruz live in the suburbs, and many people who live in Santa Cruz commute out of the area for work. This means that during the daytime—prime public space hours—many people are either inside working or away from downtown. That relegates time for public space to the evenings and weekends. Those factors may have contributed to the fact that Santa Cruz’s public space scarcity never seems to get traction as a political issue.

“We’ve cut ourselves off from many of the things we’ve wanted because we didn’t want to pay the price for those things,” says Primack. “The reason we don’t have great public space in downtown at this point is because, as a community, through our individual actions and through our political actions, we haven’t supported it.”

If all goes according to plan, however, Santa Cruz will soon have a public space that will make my curbside lunches unnecessary and give locals a place to gather, celebrate, hang out, create, eat and drink.

Abbott Square, the underutilized slab of concrete between Cooper Street and the Museum of Art & History (MAH) entrance, is being transformed into a public plaza. With tables and seating, live music and performances, a Secret Garden for children, community events, and a public market with food and drinks, the square could be poised to become the new town center.

The seed of the idea for the Abbott Square renovation was planted not long after Nina Simon came on as executive director of the MAH in 2011. As Simon reshaped the museum, tripling attendance in the process, she and her team wondered how they could extend that excitement beyond the museum walls.

When they produced “Glow: a Festival of Lights,” in Abbott Square, they saw how people and art could take over the plaza and create an important space for the entire community.

“You can’t build community behind the walls of a museum,” Simon says. “If we can take the creativity and the energy and the community-building that’s happening inside the museum and put it out in a public space like Abbott Square, that’s going to completely change our ability to execute our mission and really to change the culture of downtown.”

When the MAH staff started making plans to transform and activate Abbott Square, they thought it would be as an extension of museum programming—in other words, that they would take what was happening inside the museum outside. To determine what that might look like, the MAH brought in the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit organization that supports the creation of community-focused public places, and turned to the community for input. Through a series of public meetings and events, they tapped into what community members said they wanted to see in the space.

The initial events were anything-goes idea-generation sessions with nothing off limits. Suggestions ranged from the relatable (more places to sit) to the out-there (a zipline) to the out-there-but-kind-of-awesome (a chocolate pool)—and everything in-between. But a surprising theme emerged.

“We had been thinking about Abbott Square as a great front porch for the museum,” says Simon, “as a place to take museum programming out, to invite people in. What we heard through this process was just the incredible hunger in Santa Cruz for a public plaza.”

To fill that void, the plan for Abbott Square shifted from adding on a MAH extension to creating a modern update of the traditional city plaza, complete with performances, food and events.

Phase in the Crowd

The three-phase plan for the Abbott Square renovation is well under way. The first phase, which officially opens on Friday, June 5, is a redesigned reflective entrance to the MAH; an enormous, circular sculpture titled “Beacon” created by artist Tim Phillips of Gyroscope Inc.; and an ongoing series of programming in the square including silent discos, succulent swaps, makers markets, weekly yoga classes, music, performances, and a pilot food truck program on First Fridays.

The second phase, scheduled for early- to mid-2016, is a public market on the ground floor of the McPherson Center. Developed by John P. McEnery IV, a real estate developer who developed San Pedro Square Market in San Jose and whose family has lived in Santa Cruz since the 1940s, the indoor market will house five food vendors, a chef incubator offering short leases to emerging chefs, and a bar. This phase will also see reconstruction of the plaza to expand the deck. The third phase, to be completed next summer, is a fully renovated plaza with an ongoing schedule of performances, activities and events.

Like the San Pedro Square Market, Abbott Square will be a privately owned public space. As such, the MAH has freedom to manage the space as they see fit. The vision is to create a busy, activated space, which Simon says is the best deterrent to crime, vandalism and vagrancy.

“The number one thing that makes public space work is active management,” says Simon. “You can read that in Orwellian terms, and it sounds like security guards 24/7, or you can read it in arts and museum terms and think about having friendly staff and creative activities going on such that you have diverse use all the time.”

Simon is confident MAH administrators can use the skills they’ve learned inside the museum as a guide to figure out how to build a strong community in the square. As far as practical details, they’re designing seating and thinking about art “in a way that will not be conducive to a ton of vandalism or illegal or dangerous camping.” But Simon says that, more importantly, they’re thinking about how to ensure that at almost every hour of the day there’s somebody using the space in a joyful and positive way.

“Positive use and human activity is the absolute best signal that a place is welcoming and safe,” she says. “It doesn’t take crazy electronic systems or Draconian measures if you can just ensure that there are a lot of people using the space.”

The MAH will handle programming in the square, and McEnery will oversee the public market aspect. McEnery understands that the public space aspect is critical to the MAH, and the market is being designed for the entire community—not just those who purchase food.

“We have a partnership that I think is going to be great,” says McEnery. “We pull in a lot of the art and history aspects of Santa Cruz, and coupled with this great foodie culture and market, I think we can really do some unique things.”

As a community space, it’s vital that Abbott Square be family-friendly. During community input events, Simon heard time and again from families in the county that don’t feel comfortable downtown. These families are, Simon says, “taking their energy and dollars to other communities where they feel there’s a safer, or more welcoming, downtown experience.”

By including an outdoor, free, urban play destination, the square could draw some of those families downtown. To do so, plans are being made for a Secret Garden for children, complete with a “major interactive component.”

“It needs to be a green space, a place of natural refuge in the urban downtown,” says Simon. “And it needs to be a place that kids walk into and their eyes light up.”

For programming in the garden, the MAH’s youth programing team plans to partner with the Parks and Recreation department, the library, and other groups to create family-oriented activities.

The Abbott Square project has received what Simon calls “great support” from both the City and County. “It’s going to be a fantastic space,” says Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane. “We’re always looking for places for the community to gather—for big events, but also smaller events and just to encounter one another.”

About $4 million of the project’s $5 million budget has already been raised—primarily from donors, foundations, individuals and corporations. Raising the last million remains a challenge. Simon’s hope is that they can raise the funds through small donations from community members. Doing so, she explains, will give the community a sense of ownership of the square.

“When this whole project opens next summer,” she says, “I don’t want people to walk on the plaza and say, ‘Whoa, where did this come from?’ or ‘Gee, it’s nice that somebody else did this.’ I want people to really feel like we did this. This is our place in Santa Cruz for the whole community to come together.”

A Very Public Problem

Abbott Square aims to fill an obvious need for public space downtown, which leads to the question: why don’t we have more of it? We’re surrounded by natural beauty, but good luck if you want to sit down and eat your sandwich outside. We have a string of benches along Pacific Avenue, but only one or two people can sit on them at a time. While San Lorenzo Park and the Louden Nelson Center have their charms, they’re not exactly downtown destinations—especially for families. We have outdoor seating at restaurants all along Pacific Avenue, but it’s reserved for restaurant patrons.

Before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the old Cooper House was the creative heart of downtown. A vibrant indoor/outdoor public space, gathering spot and cultural hub, it was a thriving public space. But the building was demolished after the earthquake, and nothing emerged to replace it as the town center.

Architect Primack says that in order for public space to become a priority, there needs to be a critical mass of people who can easily access it. This is often the result of having housing nearby, which brings up an issue Primack is passionate about: Santa Cruz wants to be a sustainable city with great public spaces, but we are resistant to increasing the density downtown.

“We’re going through a process now, with the planning commission, to put our money where our mouth is,” says Primack. “We have such a knee-jerk reaction in the county to higher-rise and higher-density housing. We have to really look at our rules and really confront the conflicts we have. We want an active downtown, but we don’t want taller buildings. Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t have one without the other.”

Proponents of bringing higher density housing to downtown Santa Cruz are looking at the south end of Pacific Avenue as a possible location to build mixed-use, high-density buildings. The Transit District is creating a new, mixed-use METRO Pacific Station with retail and housing. Barry Swenson Builder is building a 94-unit, high-density housing complex below Beach Hill, where Front Street and Pacific Avenue meet. Jesse L. Nickell III, the vice president of construction and development for Barry Swenson Builder, stresses the importance of having mixed-use areas in a downtown.

“To have a downtown thrive,” Nickell says, “there has to be an equilibrium between people living there, and working there, and shopping there. They have to co-mingle.”

Santa Cruz land-use consultant Owen Lawlor would like to build mixed-use buildings between the METRO station and Laurel Street. He recently asked the Planning Commission to consider allowing higher and more intense building in that area. Primack says it’s a classic case of having a planning department being reactive rather than proactive.

“Instead of having a plan in place to direct development,” he says, “we wait for developers to pressure us to update our plans.”

In addition to these attempts to increase housing density, there are several other plans in place to try and create a more sustainable, thriving downtown. Organizations like the Coastal Watershed Council and the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project are working to improve the San Lorenzo River and the adjacent bike and pedestrian path—to shake the area’s reputation as “Heroin Highway” and recreate it as the RiverWalk. Through cleanups, river education, art installations and community events, they are activating the area as a public space. Mayor Don Lane recently declared June to be San Lorenzo River Month, and on Saturday, June 10, Ebb & Flow hosts an unveiling of 10 new arts projects along the path. 

On a smaller scale, Santa Cruz will soon be home to parking spot mini-parks known as parklets. The first proposed parklets, in front of Hula’s Island Grill and Lúpulo Craft Beer House, will be privately owned and managed. The Downtown Commission has recommended a year-long pilot program for the parklets, and Chip, the executive director of the Downtown Association, thinks the private parklets could lead to public parklets.

“We’re able to do this because the businesses are going to pay for it, and take responsibility for it, so they need to make money from it,” says Chip. “If we had public funds to do it, it would be different, but right now, we don’t. There may be a way in the future that revenue from the [private] parklet program could pay for a public one.”

Increasing downtown density and turning parking spots into parklets makes one wonder where people will park their cars. The green scenario is that more people walk, bike, and take the bus into town. Actualizing this scenario is no small task, but it’s being furthered with the plans to renovate the METRO Pacific Station.

The aim, according to the METRO website, is for the station to “improve the urban fabric” of lower Pacific Avenue and Front Street and enhance the viability and attractiveness of the downtown, which could potentially catalyze further development along the southern end of Pacific Avenue.

Abbott Square, the RiverWalk, parklets, a new METRO station—it all paints a nice picture of Santa Cruz as an activated, sustainable city, with great public spaces. How it all comes together remains to be seen, but it’s an exciting time to be in Santa Cruz.

“Our downtown is poised really well right now, given the global trends, to be one of the most exciting places anywhere,” says Chip. “I know that I’m an overly optimistic cheerleader, but I really do believe that the stars have aligned right now. We’re a little behind the curve in setting the table for it, but there’s some exciting stuff happening.”

Re-Inventing the Abbotts

This is not the first time there has been a push to improve downtown Santa Cruz’s public space. Before 1969, it was a run-of-the mill main street. That was when photographers Chuck and Esther Abbott spearheaded a plan to beautify and enliven the street by reinventing it as the Pacific Garden Mall. They oversaw a downtown cleanup, the restoration of old buildings, and the addition of hundreds of trees, planters and places to sit. Rebuilding after the Loma Prieta earthquake changed the face of downtown once again, but downtown has long been missing a defining central gathering spot—a heart of the city. Simon thinks Abbott Square could be such a place.

“The Abbotts had this crazy idea that we could have a downtown that was completely different from the sleepy Main Street we used to have,” she says. “In a lot of ways, I feel like we’re the next generation of Chuck and Esther Abbott’s vision about what downtown should look like.”

Contributor at Good Times |

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on community, collaboration, the future of work and music. She's a regular contributor to Shareable and her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Yes! Magazine, No Depression, UTNE Reader, Mother Jones and Launchable Mag. More info: catjohnson.co. Follow her on Twitter at @CatJohnson.

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