A look back at how downtown Santa Cruz recovered from the 1989 earthquake
[Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in 2005 in pre-Good-Times-merger Metro Santa Cruz as one in a multi-part series which I still consider the definitive chronicling of development in downtown Santa Cruz.]
The road to hell isn’t the only one paved with good intentions. Pacific Avenue, sometimes known as the Pacific Garden Mall, but most commonly understood as simply “downtown Santa Cruz,” has relied on the good intentions—even relentless devotion—of the good people of Santa Cruz for more than 100 years.
It’s kind of pitiful, actually.
The history of the area reads like one long verification of Murphy’s law, or a game with the elements not unlike rock, paper, scissors—only we get to play with floods, earthquakes and fire. Flood rots wooden foundations, which are replaced with masonry; earthquake levels masonry, which prompts a return to wood. Fire burns wood, and so on. If this is some kind of cruel game of fate, then Santa Cruz, over the years, has pretty much sucked at it.
Naturally, because the odds are against us. The sexy strip of land we call downtown is part of the natural flood plain of the San Lorenzo River, source of the 1955 flood that devastated downtown. The soil here is subject to liquefaction in an earthquake, and if there ever was a major tsunami on the West Coast (experts say it’s extremely unlikely), well, downtown is right in the tsunami run-up area. If we were golfers, we’d call the spot where downtown Santa Cruz landed a bad lie.
“I keep looking over my shoulder for the locusts,” says John Lisher, who owned Artisans Gallery on Pacific Avenue when the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed downtown Santa Cruz on Oct. 17, 1989. Afterward, he relived the tragedy many times a year, giving presentations for a branch of the governor’s disaster preparedness program called the California Specialized Training Institute.
Photos of the destruction and statistics like $433 million in damages, more than 600 people injured and six people killed reveal the devastation caused by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake. A columnist in the Washington Post wrote that Santa Cruz lost no less than its very soul. “A piece of the ’60s went down when the quake struck this beach town last week,” she wrote, “and no amount of cement and plywood, no amount of government loans, can bring it back. The quake stole the only thing Santa Cruz had going for it—its past.”
Remembering the Abbotts
The past that she spoke of is actually a 20-year period of time, from 1969 to 1989. Before that, Pacific Avenue was just a boring little Main Street, and a flagging one at that, until Chuck and Esther Abbott embarked on a mission called “Project Foresight” to convince business owners to transform the avenue into a Pacific Garden Mall.
With nearly 100 species of trees and plenty of benches and planters, the converted PGM was lush and welcoming, its line swaying gently east and west as it ambled north from Cathcart to Water, accented along the way with architectural landmarks like the Cooper House and the Del Mar Theatre. The old mall is still remembered by many as an urban Eden.
For a while, the new mall flourished, and the counterculture with it, which I’ll sum up with a snapshot of the Cooper House in the afternoon: people eating and drinking outside, lawyers and hippies in close proximity, Warmth playing the soundtrack to people dancing in the streets. But by 1989, the downtown had gone downhill. Overgrown trees and bushes blocked the streetlights, making some residents feel unsafe there at night.
“Before the earthquake,” says former Downtown Association president Louis Rittenhouse, “you could fire a cannon down Pacific Avenue at night and never hurt anybody.”
Businesses were also extremely unhappy with and distrustful of the progressive majority, which had taken control of the council in ’81, and had been largely unresponsive to their concerns about street people downtown.
“All the businesspeople were often—I use the word ‘whining’—about how things are terrible downtown,” remembers Mayor Mike Rotkin. “We [progressives] never had that much of a sense that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. For us the issue was, ‘How do we want to spend the money the city takes in?’”
Thanks to UCSC’s continuing parade of undergraduate cash cows, not to mention the cheap rents charged by longtime property owners whose buildings were free and clear, downtown was still economically viable, and the city was functioning somewhat comfortably on the sales tax revenue. The earthquake changed all that.
“All of a sudden,” says Rotkin, “for the first time, progressives who had been in power are in a position where they have to figure out, ‘Jeez, now what?’”
All Fall Down
While the earthquake took its toll on the entirety of Santa Cruz County, Gary Patton, who was chairperson of the Board of Supervisors at the time, says that downtown Santa Cruz suffered the most destruction. Buildings lay in ruins on Pacific Avenue, while the infrastructure below—sewage lines, water lines, telecommunications lines—was irreparably damaged.
The Urban Land Institute estimated that Santa Cruz would be lucky to have its downtown back in 10 years. Engineers flew in from around the world to evaluate the structures left standing after the quake, red-tagging building after building. Battles to preserve historic landmarks like the Cooper House were fought and lost. Citing safety issues, City Manager Dick Wilson exercised his emergency powers and had unsafe buildings torn down immediately, even before business owners could retrieve anything—cash, records or merchandise—from the condemned buildings. The rationale was that if something were to collapse, more lives would have to be risked in a rescue effort. Some went in illegally and did not get caught. Jeffrey Armstrong wasn’t so lucky; while removing desk, chairs, records and a computer from his office in the old Hihn Building at Lincoln and Pacific, he was arrested at gunpoint. No one was hurt.
“Some people never forgave us for buildings coming down,” says County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt, who was Santa Cruz’s mayor at the time of the quake. “Which is understandable, but we made the best decisions we thought we could given the evidence we had at that time.”
The economic and cultural heart of the city was destroyed. Knowing that post-earthquake rebuilding efforts are notoriously unsuccessful in small towns, the City Council promptly decided not to approve any projects outside of the downtown area, to focus all energy and investment on Pacific Avenue from Laurel to Water streets, plus Cedar and Fronts streets on either side. The magnitude 7.1 turn of the karmic wheel effectively rendered moot all the political struggles over development and growth throughout the county. All the chips moved downtown, and the pressure to move quickly—first to eliminate immediate dangers, then to relocate people and businesses, and ultimately to rebuild—never let up.
“It’s still a blur to me,” says Wormhoudt. “The community was very divided, and my fear was, those of us—and I will include myself among them—who fought mostly environmental battles and stuff like that, we’d gotten very sophisticated at knowing how to stop projects—not necessarily how to get things done. And so I was really troubled.”
She said as much to a Sentinel reporter on Nov. 19, a month after the quake when the town clock reopened, adding “When you see all the possibilities [of rebuilding the mall], it can be kind of terrifying.”
But progressives weren’t the only ones with the sharp learning curve ahead of them. Earthquake insurance didn’t exist at the time, and many of the property owners downtown—some of whom had been bequeathed their land and buildings from family—had never developed anything before the earthquake.
“They were property managers rather than developers,” says Redevelopment Agency director Ceil Cirillo, who was hired soon after the quake.
Adding to the difficulty was the fallout of the savings and loan scandals in the coked-up ’80s, which trashed the economy and led to absurd lending policies that required developers to rent 100 percent of their retail space before a loan would be granted.
“It was a really hard time,” remembers Wormhoudt. “If you’re gonna have a disaster, you should have it when the economy is good, you know? And the economy was bad.”
Beyond Good and Evil
Miraculously, the proactive forces of a community in crisis conspired to push, from conception to completion in less than six weeks, the idea of moving merchants into large tents. The so-called Phoenix Pavilions, built by a company called Sprung Instant Structures, covered some 44,000 square feet of parking lot space along Cedar Street. With the help of donated time from local unions, the tents were set up and open for business by the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year.
Meanwhile, Rittenhouse had called Rich Bradley, who was the president of the International Downtown Organization and who just so happened to be in San Francisco at the time, to help facilitate the rebuilding process.
“There were still aftershocks as I was coming to visit,” says Bradley. “At that time, my first civic contacts were Dick Wilson and Mardi Wormhoudt, and the lesson I brought to them is that cities that seem to have succeeded after a disaster are cities where everyone pulled together, and Santa Cruz was known as a place where traditionally people like to pull in different directions.”
An idea began to take shape to bring both the business community and the community at large to the table together, to find some common ground for what would become of the downtown. The magic number was 36.
“The Gaggle of 36 was patterned after the Richmond Project,” remembers Rittenhouse. “In Richmond [Va.], you had two groups—you had most of the business community, and then the politics of Richmond were controlled by the black population. Richmond was becoming kind of like East Palo Alto, where all of the property, the money, the banking community, the ability to invest was controlled by a predominantly white population that had virtually abdicated out of Richmond, and let it sit there and it kept degrading. They finally arbitrated a deal in Richmond where they had an equal number from the financial community and from the political community, 15 and 15, so that somewhere they had to reach a compromise that both sides could live with, and that eventually became a terrific success story in revitalizing a city.”
Bradley advised the council to bring to the table all the stakeholders, which included merchants, property owners, developers, lenders and various other members from the public realm.
“The earthquake forced the politicians to work with businesses,” says Rittenhouse, “as opposed to dictating, which they had been used to for a protracted period of time, and in that case I think we got a fairly workable downtown program.”
Vision Santa Cruz
“The earthquake for most people was a pretty important event in their life,” says Pacific Cookie Company owner Larry Pearson, “and for those of us who were involved with the reconstruction effort, it’s one of the seminal events in our lives.”
The early days were slow going, as the members groped to find their bearings in the group. It took them multiple meetings to work out a name, even a fair amount of time to choose the shape of a table.
“What actually was going on there was we knew it was going to be a long process, so that the name was important, and it had to indicate what we were about,” remembers Pearson. “We could have called ourselves ‘Rebuild Santa Cruz,’ which would have meant, ‘Let’s re-create what was there before.’ But all of us realized this was an opportunity that a community is very rarely given, and that is to redefine itself, to have the ability to rethink itself, and how its downtown core—the center of social interaction in the community—how it can be configured, how it can further a community’s sense of itself.” And so Vision Santa Cruz was born.
Pearson says that, in much the same way that everyone’s a food critic, everyone’s an urban planner. Jim Pepper, who taught environmental planning at UCSC, tried his best to make that happen, arranging a 10-part lecture series to bring “everyone” up to speed.
The series was called “The Idea of Planning: Thoughts on Rebuilding Downtown Santa Cruz,” and included speakers like William H. Whyte Jr., a national authority on public space, the New Urbanism proponent Peter Calthorpe and UC Berkeley professor of architecture Christopher Alexander. The architectural design group ROMA hired to design the downtown later remarked that they had never worked in a more informed community.
The public was also invited to participate in community chautauquas, the first of which took place in the Santa Cruz High gymnasium.
“The entire gym was covered by 8-foot tables, surrounded by eight chairs each,” explains Pearson. “Each table was covered with butcher paper, and on the butcher was a schematic of the streets and the property lines and nothing else. So each table was to feel free, those eight people, to say what they thought would be a good idea for downtown. Do we want to reconfigure streets? Put streets where buildings were, or buildings where streets were? Do you want to make the mall wider? Make it smaller? Do you want a public plaza? Any idea that you had about street furniture, about gathering places, the kinds of businesses who were there … put ’em on the paper.”
The next day, a representative from each table stood by their vision and explained it to passersby. The input from the community, like the input for this story, provided enough raw ideas to build something 20 times as long as the space in which they had to work. They’d have to narrow down the wide swath of dreams to fit into a very real downtown area. And, where neither the city nor the business community had the authority or the money to do it alone, a compromise would have to be reached.
“I really matured immensely as an academic and a professional as a result of being involved in this,” says Pepper, who is now happily retired in Bozeman, Montana, “and listening to the dynamics of this public/private partnership, which was a whole new thing in Santa Cruz.”