The fast-tracked traffic plan for Pacific Avenue comes to a halt
As November began, a proposal to make most of Pacific Avenue in Downtown Santa Cruz a two-way street was speeding through votes of approval. But, by the end of the first week of the month, support for the idea had come to an abrupt stop.
The Downtown Association (DTA) and several city council members advocated for the proposal, which would have opened up the portion of Pacific between Cathcart and Church streets to two-way traffic by Dec. 2, as a way to increase downtown spending in time for the holiday shopping season. This expectation stemmed from a recommendation made by Michigan-based retail consultants Gibbs Planning Group, which reported that shifting to two-way traffic could increase sales by 30 percent because of increased visibility of storefronts.
At their Oct. 25 meeting, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously approved for the two-way traffic plan to be voted on by a joint meeting of the Downtown Commission and Transportation and Public Works Commission on Nov. 3. Councilmember Katherine Beiers said in October that the process was moving too quickly but went along with the council on that vote.
The original plan was to change signs and striping on the road, at a cost to the city of $20,000, for a test-run in December.
Everything changed, however, when the fire department informed the council and DTA that it would be almost impossible for the fire department’s trucks to navigate the road with cars driving in both directions and cars parallel parked on the roadside. Many businesses dropped their support because they didn’t want to give up parking spaces at their front doors. When the commissions gathered in the city council chambers on Nov. 3, they were informed that both groups had pulled the item off the agenda. Unprepared to do anything but vote on this one bit of the 99-page Gibbs Study, they voted to end the meeting rather than discuss the report’s other options.
“We supported it if we could easily [have] changed the street without changing parking or sidewalks by simply changing striping on the streets,” says DTA Executive Director Chip, who goes by one name. “Logistically we were not able to do that without removing parking and at that point there was no support for it.”
There will be a public hearing on issues in the study and any other ideas for downtown design on Tuesday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. in council chambers. Vice Mayor Don Lane hopes to focus on other areas of the town that Gibbs Planning Group examined, and says that changes to Pacific are not under any deadline.
“Now that the immediate proposal was withdrawn, I don’t think there is any timeline, but it might come up,” says Lane.
Lane wants more time to look over the entire 99-page study, which proposes improvements for all of Santa Cruz from Mission Street to Soquel Avenue. According to Gibbs’ analysis, the Santa Cruz economy could be boosted by $237 million by 2016 if all of the recommendations are implemented. Ideas include drawing national stores such as H&M, Lowe’s and ESPN Zone—a prospect that is likely to cause resistance considering how fierce local anti-chain store sentiment has been in the past.
Micah Posner, director of local sustainable transportation group People Power, came to the Nov. 3 meeting to share his visions of how downtown can best serve businesses, residents and tourists alike. Because the meeting was cut off early, he did not get the chance to share his ideas.
After the Nov. 3 meeting was adjourned, Downtown Commissioner Ron Pomerantz said he regretted his vote to end the dialogue prematurely, but did so because city staff was not prepared to deal with anything except the two-way plan. Outside the council chambers he said the commissions would have done a better service by exploring other parts of the Gibbs study and hearing input from meeting attendees.
“Downtown is more than a business district,” says Pomerantz. “It’s a place to meet friends. It was premature to cherry pick one piece [of the study] and fast track it. It is representative that when the business community says ‘jump,’ the council says ‘how high?’”
Bob Gibbs, managing principal of Gibbs Planning Group, says that the town could increase sales through his recommendations, but that Santa Cruz already has one of the healthiest mixes of retail diversity and competition of any city he has studied.
“I think the No. 1 recommendation is [to] keep doing what they’re doing,” says Gibbs. “Of 500 studies we have done it is probably in the top five retail wise, culturally and on a government basis. At times we wondered ‘why are we even here to make recommendations?’”
Posner returned to the Tuesday, Nov. 8 city council meeting to make his ideas known during the public comment period. He says the study opened a box of ideas that led people to rethink how they want downtown to be.
“I would like to see [Pacific Avenue] blocked off to traffic at least once a week,” says Posner. “That could be great for the businesses there, and we could see how it goes.”
He also wants changes to the price of permits to block Pacific Avenue to hold a special event, which average about $600. He said that goes against the “tenor of Vision Santa Cruz.”
That group formed to redesign downtown after the Loma Prieta Earthquake destroyed many of the older buildings in 1989. In the Downtown Recovery Plan, Vision Santa Cruz outlined downtown in the “community vision” as a “compact high-density area [that is] home to unique businesses, offering residents and visitors a diverse and wholesome environment for commercial, cultural, civic, and social pursuits.” Posner feels that two-way traffic serves no one except business owners.
To simplify traffic and diversify activity on Pacific Avenue, Transportation and Public Works Commissioner Reed Searle wants one-way traffic down the entire street. He feels this would lead drivers by the front of all businesses and cut out the confusion of having one block at the north end and three blocks in the middle of Pacific Avenue one-way. Chip agrees that it creates a maze of “Do Not Enter” signs, making the street less welcoming.
“We have all these ‘Do Not Enter’ signs that are creating confusion and sending a terrible message,” he says.
The Gibbs study cost the city $32,000, and Searle says to do nothing with that investment would be foolish.
“They are going to do something,” Searle says. “It’s a public a space and if you don’t have the public you don’t have businesses.”
In addition to various possibilities for more retail in all areas of Santa Cruz, the Gibbs study laid out predictions for making Pacific Avenue into a pedestrian mall. This plan has been floating around Santa Cruz for years, but is no closer to becoming a reality.
Of about 250 pedestrian malls installed around the country since the 1960s, Gibbs says all but six failed. The ones that did
survive economically were all in college towns. There is not support for a pedestrian mall in DTA because they feel there isn’t enough foot traffic to maintain the number of shops downtown.
Maureen Smith, a retired Santa Clara County transportation employee who advocates for a pedestrian mall in Santa Cruz, believes that directories along Pacific Avenue could solve the problem of people not seeing businesses as they drive by.
“They could expand outside dining
and I think it would be good for business,” says Smith. “You don’t have to worry about car emissions or about stepping off a curb into traffic.”
Chip says the DTA is open to ideas from residents, but that cars must be part of the end result.
“We have to make sure not to block off Pacific Avenue to bikes or pedestrians or cars,” he says. “We have mixed use set up, and it has to be accessible however people want to get there.” Photo: Keana Parker