On a recent trip to New York City, I was struck by the number of parks, benches and public spaces scattered through the city. Between Central Park, Bryant Park, plazas, pop-up sidewalk spaces and neighborhood parks, it seemed that every few blocks there was someplace to sit down and take in the city.
And cities with great public spaces are a lot closer than New York. San Francisco recently became the first and only major city in the U.S. where every resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park.
Back home in Santa Cruz, it can be hard to find a place to sit and just exist. There’s a lot to love about our downtown, including an abundance of great food, public art, coffee, musicians and world-class people watching, but we’re lacking a central space to socialize and hang out.
Abbott Square promises to change that. The new plaza outside the Museum of Art & History (MAH) may be the best thing to hit Santa Cruz’s public space scene since the old Cooper House building, which was destroyed in the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Architect Mark Primack, a former planning commissioner and city councilmember, says having a reason to go downtown that isn’t solely tied to consumerism is key to creating a thriving city.
“In a successful downtown,” he says, “you want to be there just to be there. You don’t need to justify it with your credit card.”
For MAH executive director Nina Simon, who has spearheaded the project, Abbott Square has the potential to bring the larger Santa Cruz community together around creativity and a shared sense of place. She explains that as the county is increasingly divided by geography, economic opportunities, and cultural identity, safe, shared spaces allow us to be more connected and more supportive of each other.
“As downtown Santa Cruz changes and evolves to the next chapter as an economic hub and a social hub,” says Simon, “we need spaces to come together that are not in privatized bubbles. As there are more people using and engaging downtown, those people need and deserve places to connect with each other and to build what Martin Luther King Jr. calls the love of community.”
Abbott Square, which will feature five restaurants, two bars, free performances, seating and a family-friendly Secret Garden, aims to attract residents from around the county to spend time downtown. Jennifer Gallacher, co-owner of Santa Cruz Rehearsal Studios and mother of two boys, explains that she and her family go downtown for activities, but they don’t go there to hang out—they go to parks and public spaces in the surrounding areas instead.
“Even San Lorenzo Park isn’t that close, and it’s hit or miss with the other populations that are there,” she says. “It hasn’t been that welcoming as a family atmosphere.”
Gallacher is excited about Abbott Square’s potential as a place to meet people downtown and “get the best of both worlds.”
“You could do some shopping, go to a festival or whatever great thing is happening downtown,” she says, “then be able to go to Abbott Square to sit down and have your food or have a picnic.”
Her biggest hope for Abbott Square is that it feels safe and fun, and she’s confident the MAH will “hit that nail on the head.”
If Abbott Square goes off as planned, it could also be a huge boon to downtown businesses.
“Anything that draws people downtown and adds to a positive perspective of our downtown is a win for all of our businesses,” says Sonja Brunner, business member coordinator for the Downtown Association.
Brunner is confident that Abbott Square will bolster the Santa Cruz community, saying that the MAH already does great family-oriented events and makes “magical things happen.”
The success of Abbott Square as a public space, according to Primack, who worked with architect Roy Rydell on the original Abbott Square, depends on what Santa Cruz wants, needs, and can support—and the kind of town we have.
“All the time I’ve been in Santa Cruz, we’ve struggled with this notion: Are we a small town? Are we a college town? Are we a tourist town? Trying to balance tourism and local culture is a very difficult thing to do,” he says. “If anyone can pull it off, I think Nina can.”
As Abbott Square opens to the public, Simon hopes it can be a creative community plaza that fulfills the MAH’s mission to “ignite unexpected connections and shared experiences.”
“At the MAH, we believe that art and history help bring people together across differences to strengthen our connections, strengthen our sense of place and pride of place and introduce us to each other and the rich cultural diversity represented in our county,” she says. “I hope we can do that in Abbott Square, and I believe it can be, in a lot of ways, a more powerful representation of our mission than what we can do indoors.”