[Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series on the issues surrounding parking downtown. Part 2 runs next week.]
Transportation activist Dana Bagshaw is staring at a three-sided board plastered with a map of downtown Santa Cruz overlaid with bright purple rectangles. The shapes represent future potential housing projects and indicate the growing demand for parking downtown, according to the city of Santa Cruz.
“My problem is I always see both sides of the argument,” she says at this open house organized by the city to share information about a controversial six-story library and parking garage proposal. “The truth lies somewhere in between, but I don’t know what the balance is. I just think our public officials need to pay attention. I think they’re still living in the past, with cars.”
Santa Cruz officials organized the Aug. 6 event to give a tour of the downtown Santa Cruz Public Library’s decaying branch and also share information about the city’s parking needs.
Bagshaw argues that instead of building new garages, the city could double down on promoting park-and-rides, bus transit and other transportation alternatives. Bagshaw understands there are plans to build more housing downtown, and knows that some parking spots will be going away as developments pop up. But a 600-car garage strikes her as overkill.
“We don’t need that much parking,” she says. “We don’t want to encourage more cars. They’re projecting into the future on today’s model of car travel, which they need to get away from.”
The six-story project would be on what is now the farmers market parking lot on Cathcart and Cedar streets. The weekly Wednesday market would move to a yet-to-be-built pavilion in the lot behind the Del Mar Theatre.
GT is here to provide some answers on what has already been a complicated and sometimes confusing issue. But the biggest questions are ones of creativity and its limits. City officials and library supporters are selling a vision for a 21st-century library within a downtown Santa Cruz that has a little more housing—some of it affordable—and an increased vibrancy, without sacrificing any of our small-town charm. Activists are calling on city staffers to embrace possibilities for sustainable living and new trends in transportation.
Q: What’s wrong with the current library?
Friends of Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ Vivian Rogers gets an eerie feeling when she sets foot in the downtown branch’s heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) compartments. “I always wonder if you’re gonna see mice hanging on for dear life up there,” she says.
The system has been known to fail, as has the building’s electrical wiring. The building isn’t American Disabilities Act-compliant, either. On top of that, library supporters say other problems include inadequate bathrooms and the lack of a teen space. Rogers says the most glaring issue may be the outdated plumbing system, which also fails periodically, as it did in May of last year, when the branch was forced to close right before a May the Fourth Star Wars event that librarygoers had been excitedly anticipating.
“We had all the library staff dressed like storm troopers or Darth Vader or Leia—and all these kids,” Rogers says. “We had this whole event shut down by this archaic plumbing. It breaks all the time.”
Rogers envisions Library Director Susan Nemitz being able to start planning a brand new space, one that has new modern technology, teen areas, community spaces, and study rooms.
Q: What if the city just renovates the current library?
Steve Blair, a member of the Downtown Library Advisory Committee (DLAC), said at a June 19 Santa Cruz City Council meeting that he had a vision when he joined the commission to study possible scenarios.
Going in, Blair imagined the best option would be to remodel the existing building. That was before he realized that a huge amount of cash would get spent “mitigating, not resolving or remediating infrastructure problems in the existing building.” The partial remodel would have the highest operating costs.
And when the 10-member DLAC voted, the members unanimously agreed to support a “mixed-use construction project” that would combine the library with a parking garage, as well as with a few offices or units of housing.
If the city took the remodel route, seismic regulations would limits improvements, and the DLAC report called a partial remodel “fiscally irresponsible,” as there are many features it doesn’t include—like a modern HVAC system, a teen room or an entrance that discourages loitering or otherwise improves the flow of visitors. The most common comments in a 2017 survey about the library were about feeling unsafe due to the homeless, many of whom hang out around the branch’s only entrance. Other popular survey themes included calls for better bathrooms and dedicated parking. But the fourth-most popular comment—from 8 percent of respondents—was not to combine the library with a parking garage.
In the four options studied, the DLAC considered a full remodel, too, which was estimated to be more than $10 million more expensive than either the partial remodel or the mixed-use project, according to estimates from the architecture firm Noll & Tam. Members also looked at a total rebuild, which would be more than $20 million more expensive than the mixed-use project. City officials say the mixed-use project is more efficient because a few costs are shared with the parking district, and the library wouldn’t have to pay to host temporary facilities elsewhere.
Q: Doesn’t Santa Cruz have enough parking?
It depends on who you ask. Rick Longinotti and other members of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation have reminded city officials that planning consultants they hired two years ago suggested they exhaust all transportation alternatives before they begin planning for multi-story garages. They also pressed for other solutions, like phone applications and displays to let consumers know how full the various lots are.
The city’s current models, however, assume that there will be increased demand from a few hundred new housing units and a couple hundred less parking spaces as long-standing lots get developed.
City transportation planner Claire Fliesler has outlined that 234 existing spaces could be gone by 2025. That estimate is a moving targets, though.
More than a couple city officials have said in recent months that public parking in the lot owned by Calvary Episcopal Church is expected to soon disappear, adding that the “red church,” as it’s commonly known, is getting ready to sign a lease with a developer for affordable housing on that site. As a result, many staffers said, the church wouldn’t be renewing its lease. Parking manager Marlin Granlund sent permit holders a letter to that effect last month.
The reality is that nothing’s quite so imminent. A church official did speak about talks with a developer at the June 19 meeting, but he was speaking as a private citizen.
Scott Galloway, who serves on a church committee, says that nothing’s been decided, and the church hopes to renew its lease with the city. Even if Calvary does sign with an affordable housing developer, it could be a couple of years before the developer breaks ground and the parking goes away.
“There could be a better and higher use, clearly, than a parking lot,” Galloway says of the property, which is across the street from the farmers market lot, where the library project has been proposed. “One way of looking at our lot is that open spaces are better. The other way of looking at it is that this town has a housing shortage, and it would probably be better to develop housing downtown, where there are shops and transit. It will be developed at some point, but whether that’s soon or in the distant future, we don’t know.”
Q: How much will the new building cost the people of Santa Cruz?
The cost depends on how much you drive.
Santa Cruz Transportation Manager Jim Burr has laid out a plan to increase parking rates and fees to pay for the garage. While parking deficiency fees may get eliminated, hourly parking rates would more than double to $1.25 over two years, and parking passes would increase to $75 over five years. Transportation activists, like Bagshaw and Longinotti, want the city to raise those same fees and rates, but instead reinvest them in transportation alternatives to driving, like subsidized bus passes.
Q: Do we need more parking to address affordable housing in the downtown core?
Some DLAC members like the mixed-use project, in part, because it could include housing or support affordable housing off-site.
As surface lots get redeveloped, downtown Santa Cruz could end up with very few parking spots south of Lincoln Street—the same portion where most of the city’s new housing is expected to go. Planning Director Lee Butler says structured parking costs $45,000-$65,000 per space. Supporters hope that a new garage would leave wiggle room for more affordable housing to get proposed downtown, without forcing downtown leaders to sweat the parking impacts of approving such projects.
Q: How much can we reduce demand for parking altogether?
The campaign for Sustainable Transportation calls for a more robust package of transportation alternatives, like programs implemented in Boulder, Colorado and at Stanford University in Palo Alto.
Only half of Stanford commuters drive alone, a 22 percent drop from 2000 levels. However, although the city’s drive-alone rate is 56.5 percent, that’s still nearly 9 points lower than Palo Alto’s.
It’s also just over 5 points higher than Boulder’s. That difference can be attributed to a gap in the two cities’ work-from-home rates—Boulder’s is much higher. Be that as it may, Santa Cruz’s downtown commissioners aren’t interested in growing their work-from-home population, under the assumption that downtown employees are downtown customers.
There’s a common argument against building new parking—that the growth of ride-sharing apps pending a self-driving car revolution will lead to a dramatic decline in parking demand. It’s worth pointing out that this perspective may not be able to exist in harmony with sustainability goals. A July report from transportation expert Bruce Schaller found that mobile-based ride-sharing options, like UberPool and Lyft Line, have led to more driving, not less, largely because they appeal to people who weren’t going to drive anyway.
Schaller outlines a couple of tools that could be used to combat this trend, including the continued expansion of bus and bike lanes.