The logic behind one expert’s recommendation that Pacific Avenue traffic go both ways
The Santa Cruz Downtown Commission is once again pushing forward a proposal made last year by urban retail expert Robert Gibbs to convert Pacific Avenue into a two-way street—a change he claims would make downtown easier to navigate and cause sales to increase dramatically.
In addition to traveling the country advising communities on how to improve economic vitality in their downtowns, Gibbs, who hails from Michigan, teaches a class on urban retail at Harvard University and also recently published a book titled “Principles for Urban Retail Planning and Development,” which includes a chapter on Santa Cruz. He writes that Santa Cruz has the potential for an ideal downtown, with its diversity of businesses and lively ambiance. But he says the one-way streets on and around Pacific Avenue confuse drivers and deter people from visiting shops on opposite ends of the strip, resulting in lost sales.
Gibbs first came to Santa Cruz in 2009 on an invitation from the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce to speak at a business fair about “New Urbanism,” which he calls an approach to development that promotes integrated, diverse, vibrant and conventional community centers. He returned in September of last year to consult with city officials on how to improve our downtown.
“Pacific Avenue is laid out so you cannot drive from one end to the other in either direction,” Gibbs says, adding that people tend to scout the shops they will go to from their cars. He says that the places people see while driving heavily dictate the way they will shop.
“So if you start shopping at one end and want to [drive] to the other, you get kicked off, and we don’t think many shoppers will go off the block and come back,” Gibbs explains. “They’re more likely to go on their way.”
With environmental and health awareness on the rise, is it wise to encourage more driving downtown rather than walking or bicycling? While Gibbs says there is some truth to the importance of getting people walking, he adds, “You have to get them to drive close to the store first. People shop from their cars.”
Gibbs estimated that converting Pacific Avenue to a two-way street would result in a 20 to 30 percent increase in sales at downtown shops. Bill Tysseling, the executive director at the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, says this equates to about $90 million annually.
Based on sales tax data collected by the City of Santa Cruz for the downtown area, even a 10 percent increase would result in an additional $150,000 annually in sales tax revenue for the city’s General Fund.
Last year, the Downtown Commission, galvanized by Gibbs’ estimates, moved forward quickly with the two-way proposal, hoping to implement the plan in time for the holiday season. But the initiative was put on the back burner when complexities arose concerning the width of the avenue and the ability of fire engines to maneuver the street with its current parking arrangement. Gibbs’ original recommendation did not include eliminating parking spaces for the two-way conversion, but after Public Works ran a two-way trial, it became evident that keeping all on-street parking was impossible, city engineer Chris Schneiter says.
Seven months have passed and now the proposal to convert Pacific Avenue into a two-way is back on the table with some revisions, Downtown Commission Chairman Jesse Nickell says. The Downtown Commission approved the two-way plan on May 24.
The city council, which will need to approve the plan before it is executed, does not yet have the item on its agenda, and Tysseling does not think a final decision will be made for several months. City Councilwoman Lynn Robinson could not comment on the likelihood of the two-way plan going into effect, but says she is open to a change.
“We’ve gotten so used to what’s there that we think it’s working,” she says, “but I’m convinced we can improve it.”
Determining a workable balance between the parking and street simplification is still in the works, according to Tysseling. If the two-way plan were implemented, parking on one side of Pacific Avenue would be removed, totaling in a loss of 39 spaces. Fire truck access is also still an issue. The two-way plan would cost $38,200 to implement and removing the parking would result in $52,000 lost annually.
Gibbs concedes that the prospect of downtown losing that many business-side parking spots “would be significant setback,” and says he would not be able to recommend the two-way conversion if it would result in losing more than 10 percent of Pacific Avenue’s on-street parking. He’s confident, however, there’s a way to make it work.
Other drawbacks to a two-way design are additional congestion at intersections, more air pollution and loss of bike lanes on several side streets, according to the Downtown Commission’s May 24 Agenda.
Gibbs tells GT that in his experience, two-way conversions have created a calmer environment for drivers and pedestrians and helped mitigate traffic, while one-ways cause confusion.
Noi Kaulukukui, sales manager at O’Neill Surf Shop, says he hears customers complain more about parking downtown than navigating the streets.
Some downtown employees express interest in converting Pacific Avenue into a car-free pedestrian mall, suggesting that that could increase sales downtown.
According to Gibbs, that system is rarely successful.
In the ‘60s, there were 260 no-car downtowns developed around the country, he says.
“Two hundred and fifty of those went into a ‘tailspin’ and only six worked,” he says. “Many lost all their retail and the downtowns stayed vacant.”
An alternative that accomplishes some of the same things a two-way configuration would while maintaining parking spaces is converting the length of Pacific Avenue into a one-way, Schneiter says. A one-way conversion would cost $25,000.
Implementing the one-way plan would make for a much simpler downtown, Gibbs says, but travel from the beach into downtown would still be problematic.
While some downtown shop owners say it would be best to leave things the way they are, Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb says that all findings indicate the current configuration is not working.
Changing the traffic configuration will make a difference, Lipscomb says.
“People struggle with the lay of the land,” she says. “You want traffic flow to be intuitive, and it’s not here.”
Photo: Keana Parker
What are your thoughts? Do you find the current traffic pattern confusing? Does it stop you from coming downtown? Please write your comments below.