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Circling The Square

news2Plans for revamping Abbott Square get underway

A lot can change in 15 seconds.

The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake proved that in Downtown Santa Cruz, when it brought down 31 buildings, forever reshaping Pacific Avenue and the way Santa Cruzans think about it.

After the earthquake, residents came together to rebuild and re-imagine Pacific Avenue. Earlier this month, more than 20 years since Loma Prieta struck, locals were at it again, though on a much smaller level.

The Museum of Art & History (MAH) has been developing a plan to reinvigorate Abbott Square, the concrete courtyard outside the museum’s entrance, since 2011. They recently made a big step forward in the plans by hiring Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York firm founded by William H. Whyte, the late urban planner who consulted Santa Cruz after the earthquake. The MAH has also made it onto the shortlist for a prospective grant from ArtPlace, a national art fund, for funding for the project; they find out if they will receive the money in May.

MAH Executive Director Nina Simon envisions the new Abbott Square as being a vibrant cultural space open to the public for artistic expression, a family-friendly meeting place, and a community marketplace. The county owns the space, but the MAH is in the middle of a 50-year lease, meaning it has fairly free reign over what to do with it.

Two representatives from PPS were recently in Santa Cruz to host a dozen focus group meetings and two workshops that were open to the entire community. PPS Vice President Cynthia Nitkin says that safety—particularly worries that making the square more comfortable and inviting would turn it into a type of homeless haven—was the primary concern in every group she met with.

“This is something that I’ve heard about from businesses in that area and the office space users above,” Mayor Hilary Bryant says. “There [have] really been some challenges with Abbott Square and making sure that it’s a safe space for everybody to use.”

According to the 2011 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey, more of the city’s homeless population is unsheltered than sheltered, meaning a lot of people take to the streets. Many participants expressed sympathy at the meetings, but also admitted that this often deters them from coming downtown.

Other than the 14 meetings held by PPS, there was another meeting in which Abbott Square was discussed that did not take place at the MAH. The topic came up near the end of a Jan. 30 Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) meeting on the other end of Pacific, at SubRosa Café. Many attendees expressed frustration with the project, particularly about the amount of money going into it. The estimated cost is between $500,000 and one million dollars, and though most of the money will come from private donations and local businesses, the City of Santa Cruz pledged $10,000 to the project after the MAH presented its plan.

“We only talked about it briefly, but there’s a huge amount of money being spent there,” said one HUFF member. “It’s another example of businesses preempting the city’s agenda.”

HUFF did not participate in any talks with the MAH and PPS, though representatives from Social Services did.

news2-2Concerns for safety and a subsequent lack of positive public spaces in Downtown Santa Cruz is an issue that can be traced back decades. Before the Loma Prieta Earthquake, downtown was a sprawl of curving streets and an abundance of trees—a sort of “urban arboretum,” recalls Larry Pearson, Pacific Cookie Company CEO and former member of Vision Santa Cruz, a 36-member task force put together by the city council after the quake to come up with ideas for what the new downtown would look like.

“What people liked about the old downtown was the overriding feeling that it was the community’s heart,” Pearson says.

But with its winding paths and thick foliage, the old downtown was also seen as unsafe by many, a consensus that was partially responsible for Pacific Avenue becoming what it is today—a straight line, with stricter policies on permits and fewer organic gathering spaces.

Part of the aim in renovating Abbott Square is commercial—Simon and Bryant both voice hopes of attracting more retail businesses to the old Cooper House building, which is currently partially empty, thus attracting more shoppers to that end of the street. But the overriding sentiment in focus group meetings and workshops was the desire to bring back some of the old magic the 1989 earthquake knocked down along with the historic buildings—with safety permitting, that is.

PPS will return to Santa Cruz in March, taking ideas from the community and presenting a specific vision. From that point forward, local artists and designers will be asked to collaborate with the MAH to put the plan into action. Just a few of the most popular of the scores of ideas posed include closing off Cooper Street from traffic to hold bigger outdoor exhibits, erecting LED light sculptures in the square, and having local designers build interactive art pieces for kids to play with. Nitkin told meeting audiences that, at this point, the sky was the limit.

Pearson thinks Abbott Square could exist as a safe yet accessible public space. He remembers a piece of advice Whyte gave Vision Santa Cruz after Loma Prieta: if a space is vibrant and filled with all different kinds of people, no one group can make any other uncomfortable.

“If you cannot activate a space, it will be perceived as dangerous and will become vacant,” says Pearson. “Any place, in order to feel safe, needs to have many people in it. When downtown is at its best, it’s filled with people enjoying themselves.”   

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