The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake may have shaken Santa Cruz to the core, but it did one thing and one thing very well—it brought the community together. Here, GT probes the minds of several well-known Cruzans to get a better perspective of how things unravelled back then and … what may lie ahead. (Pictured: Mark Primack on a piece of the old Cooper House.)
What do you remember most? With my family safe and our home secure, I walked the length of Pacific Avenue a half hour after the earthquake. As an architect and Zoning Board Chair, I felt compelled to attempt my own assessment of damages. I didn’t have a camera, so I tried hard to take indelible mental notes on the apparent condition of each building I passed. Those first impressions informed later efforts at housing displaced businesses and saving older buildings. It is those white-knuckled images of cracked and battered buildings that come most clearly to mind when I remember the ’89 quake.
Best actions and visions that came out of that time? Two mornings after the earthquake, an ad hoc group of city commissioners and business people—perhaps a dozen in all—gathered at the Children’s Art Foundation on Cedar Street to discuss options. The next day we began talks with the representative of the company that manufactured the pavilions that would house our downtown businesses (some for the next five years). By the next week, volunteer realtors were drawing up leases for participating businesses and volunteer architects were space planning each pavilion for retailers and restaurateurs. A week after that, union construction workers erected 75,000 square feet of sales space in one weekend and local artists began printing custom holiday wrapping paper. The pavilions opened for business the day after Thanksgiving and merchants there had their best year ever. A month after the earthquake, downtown Santa Cruz had proven it could save itself. After that it was just bricks and mortar. And, this time, rebar.
Two mornings after the earthquake, an ad hoc group gathered to discuss options … The next day we began talks with the representative of the company that manufactured the pavilions that would house our downtown businesses.
Your vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years? Disasters have a way of exposing the shallowness of political power while measuring the true depth of a community’s generosity and compassion. For me there were no surprises in ’89 on either count. The good people of Santa Cruz planned and then rebuilt their downtown during a prolonged recession. The people led and the leaders followed. The universal need for recovery swept aside all the divisive forces; cooperation, tolerance and compassion prevailed. My vision, or I should say my hope for Santa Cruz, is that we continue that recovery and grow into a creative, open, just and generous community that will truly reflect the spirit of this place.
Owner Bookshop Santa Cruz
Coonerty (second from left) back in the day. Here, after losing his business to the quake, the revered Bookshop Santa Cruz owner makes plans where to place bookshelves in his new home in the pavilion.
When you think about the ’89 earthquake, what do you remember most? The building that Bookshop Santa Cruz leased was severely damaged in the earthquake. When the city finally allowed us 48 hours to remove our inventory and fixtures it meant the difference of Bookshop surviving or not. The building was still dangerous, and the city required everyone who would enter the old bookshop to save the books and fixtures to sign a waiver that spelled out that they might die if an aftershock caused the building to collapse. And that the city would not put rescue workers in harm’s way to get anyone out of the rubble. I went on KUSP the night before asking for volunteers to help save Bookshop but also carefully explaining the danger and the waiver. At 8 a.m. the next morning my wife and I went down to the Bookshop expecting a few people who might help us pull books out of the store. As we came down the hill on Mission [Street] we saw 400 people lined up ready to don hardhats and sign waivers to help save Bookshop Santa Cruz. We were literally saved by our friends and customers. I still get emotional when I think of that day 20 years ago when our community saved our dream.
$1 Billion-That’s the amount of money Loma created in public and private property damage in the county.
Bay Area total: More than $6 billion. Considered the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history at the time.
What were the best actions and visions that came out of that time? In the long and sometimes slow process of planning to rebuild downtown Santa Cruz, the Vision Santa Cruz committee did so much right. We were facing a destroyed commercial area at a time of a national recession and many cooler heads felt that downtown Santa Cruz might never rebuild. For example, we were faced with the problem that new construction meant much higher commercial rents, so how could we plan for that need? We decided we would rebuild to make the retail day extend into the evening to allow merchants to pick up more sales. Before the quake, fewer than a dozen businesses were open past 6 p.m. and many closed on Sundays. In order to stretch the retail day we widened sidewalks and encouraged sidewalk cafe tables for restaurants. We worked to attract a cinema complex on Pacific [Avenue] and rebuild the Del Mar Theatre. We made sure the streetscape and lighting made people comfortable. And it all worked. Today Pacific Avenue is almost as busy in the evening as it is during the day.
As we came down the hill on Mission we saw 400 people lined up ready to don hardhats and sign waivers to help save Bookshop Santa Cruz. We were literally saved by our friends and customers.
What is your vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years? Downtown Santa Cruz is the retail and commercial heart of Santa Cruz but it has always been about more than just the exchange of money for goods and services. It is where we hold our community parades, where political tabling happens, where we display our architectural history, where our civic life goes on, where kids come in their Halloween costumes to trick or treat, and where people bump into friends and neighbors and catch up on each other’s lives. We need to keep downtown Santa Cruz alive in that fuller role it plays in our community. It needs to continue to be that third place (other than where you live and work) where community happens. And we need to also keep downtown Santa Cruz a happy and healthy retail neighborhood. My final wish is that people stop making downtown Santa Cruz a political football: if you don’t like it, stay away and shut up; if you like it come on down and enjoy downtown Santa Cruz like thousands of us do.
Former Chair, Downtown Commission
What do you remember most? Besides the earthquake itself, my most vivid memory is Pacific Avenue. The street was a chaotic [mess] of broken trees and litter from shattered storefronts and fallen facades. Dust was still in the air; it was eerily silent. My second memory is of the following night eating dinner in my backyard with friends who worked at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I recall thinking, ‘My friends have no job! Nobody working on Pacific Avenue has a job!’ And the thought then came to me—let’s put the businesses in tents. I was chair of the Downtown Commission and we oversaw parking. Thus, we had parking lots, but no cars to park in them. As soon as I thought of this tent idea, I mentioned it to my friends, got up from the table, and made a couple calls. The next day I convened the Downtown Commission and we set the tent idea in motion. No business failed; they were all able to relocate back onto Pacific Avenue when reconstruction was complete.
Best actions and visions that came out of that time? The best actions were the first actions, the parking-lot tents, the University lecture series organized by Jim Pepper that introduced the community to big ideas about city planning that made us better able to participate in the many community planning meetings that were part of the rebuilding process, and the hiring of the internationally renowned Roma Design Group to plan the downtown. These actions were unqualified successes. As bureaucratic as it sounds, the best summation of the best vision that came out of the earthquake is the Downtown Recovery Plan. It is a complex and decisive plan that addressed a complex problem and was adopted without opposition at a hearing so large it had to take place at the Civic Auditorium. The plan was a popular plan that, in reality, not just rhetorically, reflected the vision of the entire Santa Cruz community—left, right, center, student, and longtime resident. The best vision is that when we feel the urgency, the citizens and leaders of our community can come together to solve a complex problem.
I recall thinking, ‘My friends have no job! Nobody working on Pacific Avenue has a job!’ And the thought then came to me—let’s put the businesses in tents.
Your vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years? I will rephrase the question a little. My vision for Santa Cruz in 20 years is a community that learned its own mind and with a single voice developed the planning framework to make Santa Cruz the best city it can be. This is in contrast to a city that mostly allows time and events happen to it, and says ‘no’ more readily than ‘yes.’ My own vision is of a city that recognizes it is a city and then decides to be more of a city by radically increasing the density of its downtown core. Density is green. Density is also what makes great cities great by providing the captive market for the restaurants, cultural institutions, and specialty shops that makes cities interesting places to live in and visit. In my vision, the denser downtown would be fully integrated with the beach area.
As a concrete example of what I mean by a city that purposefully creates its own future, it is one in which, in 20 years, offices downtown are filled with businesses from a mix of industries that builds on our community’s interests. Thus, in addition to software firms locating here because we are conveniently adjacent to Silicon Valley, it would be filled with firms that build on and reinforce the interests that many of us have in natural foods, alternative medicine, bicycles, skateboards, surfboards, and in organic agriculture. This would be true because the community formally articulated what kinds of businesses it wanted to see downtown, and then the city and private sector took active steps to solicit tenants regionally and nationally. My vision for Santa Cruz is a city with enlightened leadership in both the public and private sector working with all of us to create a better place for those of us who study here, live here permanently, and who come to visit, if only for a day.
Former Rotary Club President
What do you remember most? When I think about the ’89 earthquake, what I remember the most was the quake-damaged buildings in the six block stretch of the Pacific Garden Mall, [and how they] were surrounded by a chain-link fence, instead of shoppers, as demolition crews moved in to tear down damaged buildings—especially the turn-of-the century Cooper House, which was the first building to be demolished.
What were the best actions and visions that came out of that time? I was President of the Rotary Club of Santa Cruz in 1989-90, so for me the best actions and visions were meeting the challenges of responding to the needs of our community. Our Club regrouped and decided to establish a Rotary Disaster Relief Fund to provide financial support and assistance to help business merchants re-open and re-establish small business in downtown Santa Cruz. For example, at the request of the Downtown Association, we funded $8,000 for the Aftershock Entryway Project that assisted approximately 40 businesses in downtown Santa Cruz be relocated into the pavilions (tents). By the end of my Rotary year, our club had provided over $65,000 in financial support and assistance to our community.
My vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years is a plan to link the San Lorenzo River to the rest of downtown Santa Cruz. Create opportunities for riverfront promenades.
Your vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years? My vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years is a plan to link the San Lorenzo River to the rest of downtown Santa Cruz. Create opportunities for riverfront promenades and new frontages for commercial and residential buildings on the west side of the river.
Former Head of the Redevelopment Agency
What do you remember most?
I was not a member of the Santa Cruz community prior to the earthquake but after I arrived in February 1990, I remember the coming together of community. I was surprised at how many properties were owned by people who were not developers and thus were inexperienced in dealing with the development process. A great number of them did not have earthquake insurance so it was critical for the local lenders to step in and help in the rebuilding process. Coast Commercial Bank led the effort under Harvey Nickelson’s leadership, who also played a key role in the visioning process as a member of Vision Santa Cruz. The response to the devastation from around the country was overwhelming—with donations coming in through the American Red Cross. The U.S. Department of Commerce stepped in with funds for the rebuilding planning process and ultimately with grants for two significant projects in the downtown area—the Locust Street Garage and the Museum of Art & History project—which were very supportive to the vision for downtown. And, of course, the initiative which ultimately brought me to Santa Cruz—the activation of its Redevelopment Agency, which the City Manager, Dick Wilson, recommended as a necessary tool to assist in the rebuilding.
Best actions and visions that came out of that time? I believe that the best actions and visions that came out of the time were the combinations of the elements of the old “Pacific Garden Mall” that the community loved, and recommendations in the Downtown Recovery Plan to redevelop Pacific Avenue as the social, specialty retail, entertainment and cultural center of the County.
My vision … strong linkages to the beach area, the Tannery Arts Center, the Marine Sanctuary Visitors Center and the Long Marine/Seymour Center.
Your vision for Santa Cruz for the next 20 years? My vision is that the downtown will have an active weekday, daytime population with the upper levels of the office buildings alive with the vibrancy of office tenants as well as a residential community that supports the restaurants and retailers and entertainment venues. I also envision the downtown becoming the beneficiary of the creativity being bred at the university, and that it will be manifested in the incubation of businesses as a result of the programs being offered by the university and its entrepreneurial students. This could also be supported if the university offered an MBA program locally. An additional presence to the downtown would be a satellite Cabrillo campus.
The old Pacific Avenue at its prime had a number of hotels that were ultimately converted to housing. My vision would be for the return of a downtown business hotel as well as strong linkages to the beach area, the Tannery Arts Center, the Marine Sanctuary Visitors Center and the Long Marine/Seymour Center. It’s all possible over the next 20-year period.