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NEWS1 busPlanners reimagine Lower Pacific Avenue with two projects

A collaboration brewing between the City of Santa Cruz and a private development group could potentially transform a main corridor of the city, completely revamping a 4.1-acre segment of downtown Santa Cruz’s Lower Pacific Avenue.

The two development projects, headed by the City of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz Metro, and by a private development group spearheaded by developer Owen Lawlor, are adjacent to each other, near the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street.

If approved, the projects, which are in initial planning phases, include the Pacific Station project—headed by the city and Santa Cruz Metro—which seeks to rehabilitate the Santa Cruz Metro Center and create housing, while Lawlor’s development group looks to create a mixed-use development next door.

Planners say the projects solve a public parking crunch in downtown, while offering more residential space for a community that suffers from a scarcity of housing inventory and soaring rental prices.

The project area encompasses both sides of the city block, with Front Street on the west and Pacific Avenue to the east, and will extend to the 1010 Pacific Apartments just south of Cathcart Street to Laurel Street.

“From the city’s perspective, this project aligns with our goals to provide a vibrant downtown corridor,” says Bonnie Lipscomb, executive director of Santa Cruz’s Economic Development Department. “When you view it as one large project, it creates additional open space and there is opportunity for a paseo between projects. We’re talking about a 4.1-acre project in a vibrant public downtown space.”

The Lawlor plan calls for about 200 market-rate housing units built on floors that ascend from a ground floor that will feature commercial space for retail or restaurants.

Lawlor says he and his group are eagerly collaborating with city officials and they are excited about the possibility of developing a large swath of downtown.

“It’s a large undertaking,” says Lawlor, who has partnered with Devcon Investments LLC for the project. “But it’s a great opportunity and potentially a great thing for downtown Santa Cruz. “We can provide more housing, look at creating more great retail, revamp the transit community and do it all in a way that is consistent with the community.”

The Pacific Station project has been in the planning stage for more than a decade and has been the subject of serious detailed planning talks for the past 18 months.

The project entails replacing the current Metro Center, which was built in 1984, with a ground-floor transit hub replete with retail shops and restaurants topped by four or five floors of residential units and a component of public parking.

“The current Metro Center is an obsolete facility,” says Alex Clifford, the Metro’s general manager. “Since it is located right in the hub of the downtown, we think it makes sense to pursue transit-friendly development, mixed use features, commercial property that makes sense and will support the downtown ridership of our system.”

Lipscomb says the parking spaces are particularly important, as permits for parking garages feature waiting lists at least six months long.

“We’re at the point where if you do a new development, you’ll have to create the required parking spaces,” Lipscomb says. “Previously, you could just buy into a parking district, but we don’t have excess parking spaces.”

As city leaders reimagine downtown, they are discussing parking in other places, too. Last week, the City Council bought the vacant building that used to house Front Street Thrift, which is surrounded by city-owned land. The $2 million purchase opened up a discussion about one day using the location for more parking or for mixed use—possibly a combination of housing and parking.

Lawlor hopes that creating housing downtown will give people an option of living without the dependence on automobiles.

“The community desperately needs housing, but, increasingly, young people want to live in an urban environment where they don’t need a car,” he says. “You can ride a bus, ride a bike, experience entertainment or go to the beach all without needing a car. It’s why we need more housing in the urban core of the city.”

Collaboration between the groups working on the two projects would allow the construction to move efficiently and cost effectively.

“Conducting two very major projects in sync with each other means that major construction could happen at one time,” Clifford says. “If you had disconnected projects you would be disrupting the boulevard twice.”

Both Lawlor and Lipscomb say such plans to add more connection between the two most vital parts of the community have been in place since the Recovery Plan was formulated in the wake of 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake.

There are other property owners in the project area and a variety of stakeholders that have to be brought together to make it work, Lipscomb says.

Neither project has formally submitted applications to the Santa Cruz Planning Department and neither project has been in front of the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is slated to meet May 7 and discuss possible amendments to the Santa Cruz Recovery Plan that relate to the larger Lower Pacific Avenue area.

City of Santa Cruz planner Ron Powers says he expects the two projects will be discussed at the meeting.

The Lower Pacific Avenue segment of Santa Cruz is essentially fallow ground ripe for development. According to a study commissioned by the city and released in January 2014, downtown faces a problem in being isolated from the beach area without a defined link.

“The Lower Pacific Avenue area represents one of the greatest opportunities within the community, as it can stimulate additional development, economic potential, and interest in the area by realizing the potential of the previous and ongoing planning efforts,” the study states. “An added benefit of new development in this ‘in between’ area would be a more welcoming and attractive area that helps encourage Beach Area visitors to explore the city’s downtown as well.”


PHOTO: The Santa Cruz Metro and economic development are working on a plan to redo downtown’s bus station, complete with housing and parking.  CHIP SCHEUER

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