A twice-monthly committee looking at the downtown public library started meeting this month, to plan for the branch’s future.
Armed with $23 million in recent Measure S money, the Downtown Branch Library Advisory Committee will make recommendations on the future site of the library. In other words, should it stay, or should it go?
The branch obviously wouldn’t move more than a few blocks, as no one wants to see it leave downtown. But there are deeper questions for the group, says Susan Nemitz, who moved from the Minneapolis area a year ago to oversee Santa Cruz Public Libraries.
“What should it do? I think that’s really, really important,” says Nemitz in her office overlooking Union Street, as she thumbs through binders of plans from her St. Paul days to look for examples of remodels. “While I was in Minnesota, I got to remodel three libraries, and I got to rebuild four libraries. And I think it’s one of the reasons they hired me. I worked really closely with communities about ‘What do you want?’”
Any library, in this day and age, aims to balance the needs of a variety of users—kids, teenagers, working professionals, the homeless, and more. “We used to say, ‘The library is the center of the community.’ Now we’re moving toward ‘The community is the center of library,’” says Nemitz, who takes inspiration from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, as reinvigorated by Executive Director Nina Simon. Nemitz suggested at the first committee meeting that the group focus more on what programs the library might offer than where it will be or how it will look.
When it comes to future locations, Nemitz doesn’t speak in vague abstract terms for the library’s options. At this point, she says library stakeholders will probably decide between three choices: renovate the current location, tear down the 50-year-old stone structure to rebuild on the same site or start over a few blocks away. That last plan would likely involve putting the branch on the first floor of a controversial six-story building on Cedar and Cathcart streets, with offices and parking upstairs. In terms of vision, the latter has the most upside, with the ability to design a state-of-the-art, ADA-accessible facility, while giving the city more bang for its buck. It also comes with the most controversy—especially given environmental concerns about building a car garage in Santa Cruz.
Talk to anyone who loves the library the way it is, and none of the options seem easy.
“I try not to get too engaged in the process, because at some point the politicians have to make difficult decisions,” Nemitz says. “What I try to do is make the public understand the pros and cons of each option. People ask what I think. It doesn’t matter what I think.”
The committee will be meeting the second Wednesday and fourth Thursday of every month, with its second meeting happening at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 29 at the Church Street location.
Committee members will meet at the downtown library for a tour of the current site and to see the conditions. Last month, it had to shut down for 36 hours and move a major Star Wars event planned there. (City Manager Martín Bernal has said it would be cheaper to rebuild it from the ground up a couple blocks away than it would be to renovate the current building.)
Next month, the committee will be going to the Los Gatos Library, which was planned by the same architecture firm that Nemitz hired to work with the committee.
That library is home to massive windows, art hanging from the ceiling and an outdoor reading area. The children’s section has games and lit-up, colorful holes cut into walls—“reading pods” they’re called—for kids to curl up in and read.
Nemitz would like to know in the coming weeks if they can narrow down their options from three choices down to two recommendations. “I don’t want to limit your options too much,” she told the committee, “but in terms of working with architects, they want to know how many drawings they’re going to have to draw.”
Board meetings will continue for the next five months or so, with library staff submitting a report to the Santa Cruz City Council in the late fall. They’ll rotate the responsibility of board chair.
Ultimately, the story of the library’s future could have more chapters than The Lord of the Rings books—especially if the saga involves a possible parking garage at site of the downtown farmers market.
The city’s economic development department is working on a report, due out later this summer, about downtown parking and incentivizing alternatives to driving. And a working group has also been meeting to look for a permanent home for the downtown farmers market.
“We want permanence. What does that mean? That means we never want to move ever again,” says Nesh Dhillon, executive director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets. Dhillon has heard chatter for years about a multi-story garage on Lot 4, in between Cathcart and Lincoln streets.
What he wants is for the market to have a pavilion feel, with some permanent signage, and a canopy or something else that will create a sense of space.
He’s serving on the working group, along with city staffers and stakeholders like Bonnie Belcher, organizer of the Santa Cruz Antique Faire.
Belcher says the event has been shuffled around a few times in its two decades and worries that if it had to move again, it wouldn’t survive, because it needs a high-visibility spot.
“I kind of like the status quo. I told them, for us, we really can’t move. We’ve had to move four times since the event started 24 years ago. Location, location, location,” Belcher says.
Some business owners aren’t keen on the idea of the garage, either.
Suna Lock, owner of Stripe Design Group and two Stripe clothing stores on Walnut Avenue, says the downtown area has a lot of things to patch up—trash and public safety included—but parking isn’t one of them. Lock just termed out as Downtown Association board president, but stresses she doesn’t speak for her fellow members, as they haven’t taken a position.
Lock, who moved to Santa Cruz in 2003, concedes that growing up in Great Britain may have influenced her opinion, but she says she seldom hears customers or anyone else complain about having a hard time finding a spot. Sure, there are sometimes busier, more chaotic Friday nights when it is difficult to park, but that squeeze only enlivens the streets and creates more of a big-city atmosphere, à la “Great! Look how active my city is. There’s so much going on,” she says.
Dhillon says it hasn’t been easy identifying ideal spots for the market—areas with a big enough footprint to fit the whole year-round event, which swells in the summer and shrinks slightly during the colder months. His ideal scenario would be for the council to agree to make Lot 4 the official farmers market pavilion, with permanent signage.
Of course, if a six-story structure went in, one might think market organizers could always place their event on top of it—creating a highly visible pavilion with a view spanning Santa Cruz, with expansive signage several stories high and a couple layers of parking underneath. That isn’t what Dhillon’s picturing.
“It just wouldn’t look right. You’re putting this street-level event six stories up. It doesn’t jive right. Is there anything physically preventing that from happening? I don’t think so,” he says.
Sometimes people suggest moving the market across the river to San Lorenzo Park, he says, but that would be a logistical nightmare. The fields get soggy in the winter, and it’s lacking in an important resource: “Being adjacent to parking is really important,” Dhillon says. “Until everyone decides they don’t want to drive their car anymore, we need to have parking.”