The character of Downtown Santa Cruz has pretty much been under discussion for as long as I can remember.
Longtime Santa Cruz residents love the tradition of what was once known as The Pacific Avenue Garden Mall, and that pride continues into its post-earthquake years.
But there’s an equally strong anti-downtown feeling from those who don’t like the so-called “social problems”—the panhandlers and groups of street people who line the sidewalks.
Now, the future of downtown is being examined even more aggressively. City leaders recently sponsored a study known as the Santa Cruz Retail Marketing Analysis by a Michigan-based retail expert, and his findings have touched off discussion and disagreements as to the needs of downtown.
What are those needs?
Here’s the main one: too many vacancies downtown. A friend of mine who hadn’t been to Santa Cruz in a while told me he was shocked by the number of empty storefronts—despite seeing plenty of people downtown. Some of those vacancies are temporary. A few national retail outlets are negotiating right now to occupy a couple of the vacancies—including the now-shuttered Borders store on the corner of Pacific and Soquel avenues.
But vacancies aren’t the only problem. Here’s where the economic aspect of the story rears its head. The consultant, Robert Gibbs, estimates in his study that some $1.8 billion—with a “b”—is leaving Santa Cruz in the form of shopping dollars being spent elsewhere. The impact is not only on the local economy in general, but also in sales-tax revenue to the city. And that means fewer dollars for roads, police and even social services.
Not all of that revenue drain involves the Pacific Avenue corridor, but a significant amount does. And Gibbs offers some strategies to maintain those dollars here.
Among his recommendations:
• Improving traffic patterns in the downtown area—including changing Pacific Avenue to a two-way street.
• Encouraging better traffic signs in several areas.
• Providing an infrastructure to link the Beach Area and downtown.
• Encouraging and facilitating the process of luring out-of-area retailers to Santa Cruz.
Here’s where the discussion becomes interesting. Critics of the report have said that Gibbs is promoting an agenda that involves widening Pacific Avenue, making it a two-way street and attracting more chain stores. You can read the report that way, but it’s important to remember that he doesn’t have an agenda. Rather, he’s saying that if certain changes are made—research shows that an economic bump will result. It’s called data, and office-holders and local residents would do well to keep that in mind.
Immediately, some folks have attacked the study and called for a different change: banning traffic from Pacific Avenue in favor of a pedestrian mall.
I acknowledge that the idea of a pedestrian-only street is a nice image. It’s one of walking, chatting and essentially enjoying the ambiance of a downtown walkway. The only problem is that it doesn’t work.
Gibbs has pointed out—and he’s studied downtown retail all over the country—that most pedestrian malls are being torn down simply because local retail owners have seen a drastic drop in business. The idea doesn’t work. And let’s face it—if people already complain that they don’t come downtown because of the social element, the situation would only get worse.
It’s an old story in Santa Cruz—image versus reality. The image of a people-oriented society fits nicely with the idea of a pedestrian-only mall. The reality is something different: a worsening economic climate and less sales-tax revenue for an already strapped city.
There’s another issue sure to come up—chain stores. Expect to hear an emotional argument against trying to attract chain stores to downtown. The theory goes that the city should limit nationally owned stores in order to protect locally owned businesses.
The reality is something different. Local store owners will tell you that a blend of retail actually helps them. More people downtown — even if they’re attracted by, say, Forever 21 or an Apple store—means more business at the locally owned store. It’s not an either/or.
Wishing, dreaming and hoping is not a smart economic strategy. The retail report isn’t the last word on a strategy for downtown, but it’s not a bad blueprint.
Contact Tom Honig at [email protected] Or, check out his online website at tomhonig.com