[This is part one of a series on the future of downtown. Part two runs next week. — Editor]
A familiar cliché unfolds whenever the topic of a city proposal to build a new downtown parking garage comes up.
The discussion, at first glance, appears to represent a typical split in Santa Cruz’s liberal politics. This culture-war framing has Santa Cruz’s leftier progressives fighting against the garage, painting it as a vestige of outdated, car-centric thinking. Meanwhile, Democratic moderates and centrists support the garage, as they see it as an important piece of infrastructure to support downtown retail and events. While there may be truth to both sides of this dichotomy, it isn’t a great way to actually think about the project. There’s more nuance to it.
Supporters, for instance, love the project in large part for its potential affordable housing benefits, and also because it would have a state-of-the-art library on the first floor. They believe that a 21st-century library would pay dividends for students and for the county’s most in-need residents. “This is really about creating a safe environment for families to go to and feel good about,” says Martín Gómez, president of Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries.
On the other side, opponents have argued that—in addition to environmental considerations—they have the benefit of fiscal responsibility on their side.
Activists says that city public works staffers have not been sufficiently transparent in explaining how they arrived at their parking calculations for downtown. Also, Santa Cruz is hiking its parking revenues in order to pay for the 600-car garage. Activists like Rick Longinotti warn that public works officials could be underestimating the impact that the increased price of parking will have on demand. All the while, the public’s transportation preferences are shifting. It’s unclear, for example, how common car ownership will be in the future.
Longinotti says he’s told the City Council, “You’re making a decision about an enormous investment here. Don’t you want to get the best information you can?”
In that spirit, here are four things to consider:
1. THERE’S A LOT OF PIECES
Santa Cruz has been redeveloping old surface lots and losing parking spaces—and city planners expect it will lose hundreds more downtown, given the housing projects in the pipeline. Some new parking supply in the proposed garage would offset the spaces lost. Spaces in the six-story garage would also support the new retail associated with the expected developments, according to Transportation Manager Jim Burr. Some of the new spaces would even support nearby future housing developments, allowing the complexes to provide parking offsite.
Last year, the Downtown Library Advisory Committee unanimously approved the concept of a first-floor library as part of a mixed-use project, out of four possible options for the downtown branch. After that, plans for the parking, library and housing structure worked their way through the approval processes, earning the blessing of the City Council. The site of the garage would be on the corner of Cedar and Cathcart streets. There’s been discussion about the farmers market moving one block away to Front Street, and also about building a permanent pavilion at its new home. Another option for the library would be that, instead of building a new facility from the ground up, Santa Cruz could refurbish the existing library, but the committee found that option would provide far less bang for the buck.
One complicating factor is that, after many delays around the project, Santa Cruz can’t kick the can down the road much farther as it weighs how to proceed. Regardless of what it does on parking, the City Council will need to make a decision on the library. Construction costs are escalating, and the library will need to finish building before the funds expire.
The parking aspect is a separate component. In 2015, transportation experts encouraged the city to find ways to reduce parking demand before building a new structure. After more than a year of lobbying from activists, the City Council expanded sustainable transportation options for downtown employees this year—offering free transit passes, free bike locker cards, discounted e-bike memberships, and carpool incentives.
Also this year, a new City Council majority put the mixed-use garage on hold. The council formed a Downtown Library Subcommittee to learn more about the project. The subcommittee hasn’t yet released its recommendations.
2. A NEW GARAGE WILL SUPPORT AFFORDABLE HOUSING—MAYBE
The amount of housing units slated for the possible garage is a moving target.
City staff never laid out exactly how many units of housing would be in the project before a new Santa Cruz City Council majority pumped the brakes on the effort this past March. And now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed a bill that would have freed up $16 million in local money for affordable housing, it isn’t entirely clear how the city would fund the affordable units, although Santa Cruz does have affordable housing money in its coffers and it could compete for grants.
Moving the library to a new site would also allow the city to put new affordable housing on the site of the current library. Additionally, supporters from the pro-garage group Downtown Forward argue that by providing off-site parking, the structure would cut the costs of a possible plan to revamp Santa Cruz’s bus station, which would sit a few blocks away and also have affordable housing in it.
There’s a new wrinkle, however, and one that could adjust the city’s parking calculus. That’s thanks to a housing and zoning bill that Newsom signed into law earlier this month. The new law prohibits cities from mandating parking requirements for affordable housing developments within a half-mile of a major transit stop.
When it comes to the downtown garage, affordable housing entrepreneur Sibley Simon hasn’t taken a position. He can’t help but feel a little skeptical of the city’s math, as well as the way the city has pitched the project from the start.
“It would have been much smarter,” Simon says, “for the city to pursue a library and housing project that, by the way, needs some parking.”
Instead of having the city pay for new parking spaces, environmental activists have been pushing for Santa Cruz to use its increased parking revenue to fund other services like affordable housing.
Santa Cruz County Business Council Executive Director Robert Singleton has predicted that such a vote could result in a legal challenge. However, City Attorney Tony Condotti said in March that it would, in fact, be legal for the council to spend excess parking revenues however it sees fit.
3. COMPARISONS ARE DICEY
One of the Campaign for Sensible Transportation’s preferred stats is that Boulder, Colorado, has 58% less parking per commercial space than Santa Cruz does. In the beginning, this contrast jumped out at me as a compelling fact bolstering critiques of the garage. The reality is more complex.
A flier from the Campaign for Sensible Transportation says that the city of Boulder has about one parking space per 1,000 square feet of commercial space, while stating that the city of Santa Cruz has about 1.8 parking spaces per 1,000 feet of commercial square feet.
Activists found some of the figures behind these ratios on Powerpoint slides for a Boulder presentation. The slides state that the Colorado city’s downtown has 3.2 million square feet of commercial space. When I fact-checked the numbers with Boulder’s Department of Community Vitality, Deputy Director Cris Jones sent me a report showing just 2.4 million square feet of commercial space. That total may have omitted some small properties, but Jones and his colleagues don’t know the origin of the bigger estimate, so they aren’t sure of its veracity.
I also contacted Santa Cruz’s Economic Development Office, which ran the numbers and actually came back with a higher total for downtown commercial space than what the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation had in its formula. Longinotti says he got the numbers from city Transportation Manager Jim Burr. It isn’t clear where the discrepancy at the city stems from.
There are a lot of reasons for Santa Cruz to compare itself to Boulder. The community is a college town, like Santa Cruz, and it may be the only city in the country with more downtown employees who walk and bike to work than Santa Cruz. Its bus ridership, though, is much higher. Regardless, Santa Cruz’s parking-per-commercial-space ratio is much closer to Boulder’s than some of the anti-garage pamphlets would have you believe.
And while I can follow the criticisms Longinotti and his group raise about the city’s lack of explanation on its parking calculations, I’ve also found charts from activists to be misleading.
Chip, the former executive director of the Santa Cruz Downtown Association, now lives in Boulder. He took a similar position there this year and now leads the Downtown Boulder Partnership. Chip, who has no last name, says Santa Cruz should move forward with the mixed-use project, if not because of the parking, then because of the library. “The library serves the whole community,” he says. “But Santa Cruz can’t serve the whole community when it isn’t designed to.”
He notes that Boulder does, in fact, have more sustainable transportation options than Santa Cruz. He adds, however, that it took decades for the town’s local leaders to build those programs. He fears that if Santa Cruz set its sights on reaching the same goals overnight, instead of taking a more balanced transportation approach, it would deal a serious blow to downtown businesses, some of which wouldn’t survive such a shock.
4. TOO MUCH PARKING MAY NOT BE SUCH A BAD THING
There’s an obvious solution for the city to bridge the gulf in opinions for how much parking to build downtown.
The city could hedge its bets and explore building the structure while putting in significantly less parking and more housing. So far, few Santa Cruzans have publicly expressed much interest in going down that route.
Library Director Susan Nemitz does note that staff was looking at different possible mixes of housing and parking on the site until the City Council put the project on hold.
But Burr, the city’s transportation manager, says his projections are actually rather conservative—that, if anything, his mathematical findings call for more parking than the city plans to include. And members of Downtown Forward express confidence in Burr’s findings.
When I ask Longinotti about the possibility of compromise, he stresses that the city and local environmentalists are still awfully far apart in their views. Longinotti does believes people would love the idea of library combined with affordable housing. “That’s not what’s been offered,” he says. “The affordable housing has been just a token. The parking’s still 600 spaces. Nobody’s talked about any less than that.”
This all begs a question: What happens if the city does build the garage and the parking projections are off—leaving downtown Santa Cruz with way too much parking? Well, such a situation could simply let the city to eliminate parking in other parts of downtown.
Public works officials say that Santa Cruz could take the River and Front garage offline. It’s already past the end of its expected lifespan. Last year, the city put $1 million into refurbishments for the parking structure, which is generally the garage with the most vacant space.
The city could do the same with its remaining surface lots, a potentially promising idea given that urban planners view such parking lots as inefficient uses of space. Redeveloping these lots could pave the way for even more new housing, much of it affordable.
But even if Santa Cruz can build a new parking structure, that doesn’t mean that it should, according to Adam Millard-Ball, an associate environmental studies professor at UCSC.
Although he’s given presentations locally about parking management, he says he hasn’t followed this debate closely. That, he feels, gives him something of an outside perspective on the garage issue. As he sees it, the City Council could make downtown Santa Cruz a hub for those who choose to lead a car-free lifestyle, instead of proceeding with the garage. That way, those who don’t want a parking spot or permit won’t have to pay for one, making the cost of living more affordable.
This approach of putting the garage on hold would almost certainly involve forgoing the Downtown Library Advisory Committee’s suggestions.
But Millard-Ball’s general philosophy is that, if a city is thinking about spending tens of millions of dollars on a new garage, its leaders might want to start by reconsidering their options and priorities—and look at spending excess parking revenue elsewhere.
“Let’s exhaust all the alternatives first,” he says. “Let’s not jump to that decision.”