The Downtown Association has asked city council to consider changing traffic patterns on three blocks of Pacific Avenue and two feeder streets to allow for a less convoluted and more welcoming navigation to and around downtown.
With a plethora of downtown issues to focus on, a struggling national economy and increased vacancies, why would this be a priority, especially now as we enter into the busiest retail season of the year?
Earlier this year, the City of Santa Cruz engaged the services of Robert Gibbs, a well-known retail consultant, to assess the city’s economic centers and make recommendations as to how to increase the retail capacity, thereby strengthening the local economy.
Mr. Gibbs came back with a glowing report, confirming that our downtown is working well, with a good mix of tenants, a sound infrastructure, effective management and a healthy level of enforcement. Of course there were a number of recommendations to be considered, many smaller items relating to light pruning, better signage and increased marketing. But the No. 1 overarching comment that was made and has been supported by a tremendous amount of data is that a one-way street is hurting retail business in our downtown and preventing our businesses from performing at their potential.
Like most, I was skeptical. Pacific Avenue seems to be working fine the way it is and there would never be support for changing it. Yet the emphatic insistence, from Gibbs and others, was that if we only did one thing, transforming Pacific back to a two-way street would likely show an increase in retail activity in the neighborhood of 20-30 percent. What I have learned of Mr. Gibbs is that his work is driven by data and statistics, and when he makes claims such as this, that they are founded and backed by tremendous study and research and not just intuition or a feeling that it’s probably a good idea.
I also know that one of the significant deterrents for many of the prospective tenants looking at filling our vacant downtown storefronts has been the one-way street and the confusing traffic patterns. These are companies who have resources to study markets and very clearly understand what even the smallest detail does to their ability to attract and keep a customer base. To them, “Do Not Enter” signs on every block is not a small thing.
The arguments for changing the traffic downtown continued to stack up: Traffic would slow, Pacific Avenue would actually become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, There would be an increased opportunity to hold events in downtown.
But what convinced me was that we could do a significant trial period with very little investment and without losing any sidewalks or parking. With just re-striping, and removing two barricades and a handful of signs, we could begin an experiment that the experts are telling us will result in a significant increase in business for our local merchants, and we could do this well before the winter holidays.
The Downtown Association Board, representing more than 500 businesses downtown, voted unanimously to recommend to council to take on this simple project and see if the consultant is right.
Downtown Santa Cruz, and Pacific Avenue in particular, represents a lot to all of us. It is, and has always been a center of community. It’s where we meet our friends; it’s where we come together to celebrate our victories. It’s where our culture is born and nurtured; our museum, shops, restaurants and the very street itself provide the forum for our community to be. We all have memories of parades, of trick or treating, of parties and festivals and of our favorite stores throughout the years—some of them are no longer here, many of them still are.
At its core, our downtown is the center of commerce. The vitality of our community is inextricably linked success of our businesses center. There are hundreds of people who have invested to the community by opening a business in downtown. Families, some of whom have been here for generations, some that are just starting out, have made a decision to take a risk, and hope that what they do will be supported by the people of Santa Cruz. The Downtown Association has presented a plan that we very strongly believe could provide a significant benefit to the businesses here, right now.
We would be irresponsible if we didn’t try.
Stay tuned to Good Times for more on the possibility of two-way traffic on Pacific Avenue.