Neighborhood Watch

victorianTwenty-year plan for Ocean Street in jeopardy

The corner of Ocean and Barson streets in Santa Cruz is flooded with tourist traffic in the summer, and drowned by average rainfall most winters (although this year has been dry). But the state’s decision to close the more than 400 redevelopment agencies across California, including Santa Cruz’s, could mean that residents of the Lower Ocean neighborhood have to wait more than a generation for much-needed improvements around their homes.

The city’s redevelopment agency has 37 projects listed as “under way,” meaning they are already funded. However, their ambitious 20-year plan for the Ocean Street area is an example of how unclear the road forward is, even for those items pegged as under way. The city currently has $2.5 million in bonds to spend on this project over the next five years. But City Councilmember David Terrazas says that’s a small fraction of the money needed to complete the many ideas in the Ocean Street Area Concept, which was developed by Berkeley consulting group Design, Community and Environment.

The “concept” includes plans such as building higher quality housing, widening the road, and erecting a convention-worthy hotel on the street. Terrazas is confident the money will be found but says that prioritizing these phases is crucial. His top priority is to revamp the north end of the 1.2-mile stretch, because it is the first view most visitors get of Santa Cruz.

Terrazas says that improving access and encouraging new businesses to open at the “gateway to the city” will spark a revenue stream that will pay for revitalization closer to the San Lorenzo River.

The group Neighbors Of Lower Ocean (NOLO) has been pushing for improvements on that end of the street since 1994, according to nolosantacruz.org. Yolanda Henry, executive director of the area’s La Familia Center, notes that new revenue may not be needed right away because most residents want relatively inexpensive changes. She cites a recent NOLO survey, which asked residents what they’d most like to see. “Increased street lighting and addressing code violations in rentals topped their list,” she says. “Many of these changes may not cost a lot to improve the situation.”

Many of the rentals in the neighborhood are conversions of old hotels and are in dire need of repairs. Henry says that this issue could be solved by the city strictly enforcing building codes already on the books. NOLO has been working closely with the city’s housing and community development manager, Carol Berg, to take on this issue. The Sleep Tight Motel at 127 Ocean St. was fined for cockroach infestation in January as part of a new code enforcement effort.

“Business owners would repair their buildings to protect their investment” if codes were more strictly enforced, says Henry. “If you own several rentals you should do the same and make sure it’s a safe home.”

Another centerpiece to the plan for new revenue for the area is a $1.7 million “wayfinding” effort to lay out new highway and surface street signs. This is also on the list of currently funded projects. Terrazas says the new signs will show people how to explore the entire area and spark business activity outside of the beach area.

“We have so much to offer in this community,” he says. “It will allow people to discover the diverse and unique shopping districts …  from Soquel to the Westside.” This claim was reinforced in a retail study on Santa Cruz published by Gibbs Planning Group in 2011.

Bonnie Lipscomb, executive director of the Economic Development Department and former RDA director, agrees that tourists finding other neighborhoods is key to raising cash through sales tax, the opening of new businesses, and luring visitors year round.

“Many people get to the beach and don’t even know we have a downtown,” she says. “And getting to the beach is not very easy, either, because Ocean Street doesn’t lead easily to the ocean.”

Both officials believe the wayfinding effort would help replace the $22 million stripped from city hands by Assembly Bill 126 (ABX 126), the 2011 law that declared redevelopment agencies statewide unconstitutional.

Gov. Jerry Brown says he abolished the agencies because they had funded projects that had little benefit to their communities. Their stated purpose of redevelopment agencies is to “eliminate blight” in underdeveloped areas and make them more economically competitive. However, agencies in some cities and counties had subsidized construction of stadiums and large business developments that the governor argued had no clear benefit to their communities. Lipscomb says this didn’t happen in Santa Cruz and it’s unfortunate that the actions of a few cities caused all redevelopment agencies to be wiped out.

“We have a very transparent agency,” Lipscomb says. “There are city council hearings on all of our plans, and anyone can get online and see our reports and five year plans at the economic development website.”

The state’s other motive was seizing $1.7 billion from more than 400 agencies to help balance California’s budget deficit. ABX 127, which was passed at the same time as ABX 126, gave agencies the chance to pay a fee to continue operations. Several cities and counties then sued the state saying the fee amounted to ransom.

The state ruled that both redevelopment agencies and the ransom plan were unconstitutional. Despite Santa Cruz’s refrain from the lawsuit, it was left with no choice but to close down its redevelopment operation. This task alone is estimated to cost $250,000 —a hefty chunk of change considering the city has been facing annual budget deficits for four years running. The closure cost involves securing funding to maintain contracts already in progress and for those planned in the five-year plan.

Lipscomb says, however, that Santa Cruz is better off than most places in the state because the Public Works and Housing and Urban Development departments played major roles in housing and road projects, with the agency filling funding gaps. The city itself is set to become the “successor agency” to redevelopment, with various departments fully taking over those duties.

Beach Flats Community Center Program Coordinator Reyna Ruiz says the redevelopment agency was critical to boosting the quality of life in her neighborhood, and that change is possible if people patiently continue pushing local officials. She is very happy that the improvements made didn’t result in costs rising too much in the Beach Flats, and that many of the residents were able to move back after being temporarily relocated.

“It took about 20 years to get the Beach Flats to the point it’s at now,” Ruiz says. “It took a lot of strategic partnerships, and redevelopment was a huge part of that.” 

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