[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on future housing plans for the city of Santa Cruz. Part two runs next week.]
Conventional wisdom is that the quickest solution to a housing crunch like the one that exists in Santa Cruz is to build more units to meet the demand.
“A housing deficit is mostly solved by adding housing,” says Michelle King, a senior planner with the city. “The best way we can bring the cost of housing down is by building more housing and by building it close to where people work.”
But the fix, simple enough in concept, begs more questions. Namely, what kind of housing—affordable or market-rate? And more importantly, where to put it.
The corridor rezoning proposal currently working its way through the city government suggests updating the zoning code in four of the city’s major thoroughfares—Water Street, Mission Street, Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue—in some cases expanding the allowable height of buildings and the density of residential occupancy.
Some groups worry its impact will be overwhelming, rather like the whole undertaking itself.
“The thing that bothers me the most is not the magnitude of development, but the process by which some of the basic elements were decided,” said Alan Holbert during a recent planning commission meeting. “People other than those that live on the east side were advising this process.”
The commissioners, who sat through hours of often heated public testimony, took no vote at the Thursday, May 17 meeting. They’ve yet to weigh in on the rezoning specifics, something they’re scheduled to do at the next meeting, on Thursday, May 25. The matter won’t head back to the Santa Cruz City Council for about a year.
The Corridor Advisory Committee finished its recommendations last year, with other city meetings happening along the way. The planning department is also organizing a more interactive family-based event for July 8. Staffers haven’t finalized the location, but King is hoping to get a representative slice of the Santa Cruz population.
The rezoning effort is essentially the implementation of the General Plan 2030 that the City Council passed in 2012, calling for mixed use and density on the four corridors. The idea at the time was that this path would be more sustainable and have less of an impact on residential neighborhoods, compared to other types of growth. The approach encourages developers to submit projects that facilitate a pedestrian- and bicycle-centered scope.
Santa Cruz residents already rejected suburban sprawl decades ago, opting instead to preserve a greenbelt that hems the city in with forests and open fields.
Although the environmental preservation jibes with the values of many city residents, it has also meant a very limited area on which to develop. Most of the area set aside for development has already been used, meaning that new housing must get built in a more urban fashion—upward instead of outward, according to the general plan.
While most of the changes in the corridor rezoning effort are nominal, some aspects could be more transformative, shaking up certain areas more than others—a concern of neighbors in the Midtown, Eastside and Seabright areas.
Zoning in those places labeled commercial corridors allows buildings of three stories and 40-foot height requirements. Along Mission Street and Ocean Street, the proposal could potentially allow developers to build five-story buildings with a 60-foot maximum height.
King says this opportunity to build bigger and higher is contingent upon the developer’s offering a community benefit, such as affordable housing, bike trails, open space or other trade-offs.
Some neighbors still say corridor rezoning will hurt the neighborhoods by compounding an already terrible traffic situation, depleting water sources and eroding the character of the blocks next to these busy thoroughfares.
“You are going to destroy the very communities that are supposed to benefit,” said Gary Patton during the planning meeting. For his part, Patton has probably been the most visible defender of the local greenbelt for 40 years, including when he lead an effort to protect Lighthouse Field from development in the 1970s.
He called the city’s approach now “fundamentally wrong,” even comparing incentives for development to that same proposed coastal shopping mall 40 years ago. And Patton says he would hate to see anything even remotely threaten the cheap, delicious food of Charlie Hong Kong, which is on Soquel Avenue.
Many attendees echoed Patton’s concerns. Some complained that the commissioners were inappropriately aligned with developers.
Planning Commissioner Peter Kennedy calls such accusations counterproductive, saying the commission is focused on attempting to solve or at least mitigate problems surrounding housing that continue to plague the city. “It’s hard to hear those accusations because it has been an open process,” he says.
But Kennedy is more receptive to some of the specific critiques of more dense development in the city’s corridors—namely that it will exacerbate traffic problems.
King insists that extracting community benefits from developers in exchange for greater height could mean residents earn more efficient streetscapes. That could turn into newer traffic signals, better turn lanes, roundabouts and other transportation strategies to make the traffic flow smoother.
Despite a stream of opposition at the meeting, some speakers came in praise of the rezone, saying Santa Cruz made a decision when it preserved the greenbelt around the city that it would have to build more densely in the downtown areas to accommodate inevitable spikes in population.
“I applaud this undertaking,” Laura Caldwell said at the meeting. “Santa Cruz needs a completely new vision.”