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Santa Cruz City Council: Circle Church Is Not Historic

Decision not to grant landmark status allows highly anticipated development to proceed

The Santa Cruz City Council voted not to declare the Garfield Park Church—and the property surrounding it—as a historic site. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

The Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to accept a recommendation by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) not to declare the Garfield Park Church—and the property surrounding it at 111 Errett Circle—as a historic site.

That means the Circle of Friends—a group that purchased the property in 2017 for $3.3 million to build their homes—can now bring their project for approval to the city’s Planning Department.

If approved, the plan would move to the City Council for final approval.

Looking back on Tuesday’s meeting, Circle of Friends member Brett Packer says the decision came as a relief to the group, which bought the land to build a co-housing development for themselves and their families.

On Tuesday evening, Packer told the council that the group bought the property after confirming that it was not considered a historic resource, and they paid for an independent study which confirmed that.

“We feel for the first time like our project can move forward with confidence,” he says.

The group’s plans were cast into uncertainty late last year when the City Council asked the HPC to take another look at the issue. But the commission voted 5-0 on Jan. 31 against the historic designation.

In making its recommendation, the HPC determined that the property does not meet a list of seven criteria for historic designation, including that is not a “significant example” of cultural, natural or archeological heritage, Santa Cruz Senior Planner Ryan Bane said. 

Additionally, it is tied to neither historic events nor people, and was not designed by a significant builder or architect, he said.

The council’s motion includes requirements that the property owners preserve open space as the focal point on Woodrow Avenue, that they install interpretive historic signs, and that the circle pattern of the neighborhood be preserved.

The issue brought dozens of neighbors to the nearly two-hour meeting, who spoke both for and against the historic designation.

HPC member Russ Gibson, who was recused from the issue, spoke in favor of preserving the site. His comments echoed those of many neighbors, who say that the buildings have long been used as a community center and should be kept as such.

“It’s always been the heartbeat of Westside,” he said, adding that the property serves as the de facto backyard for residents in a neighborhood comprised of small lots. 

Neighbor Barbara Bennish agreed.

“What we’re trying to save is not a building for a particular religious group or the building itself,” she said. “What we are talking about is the site and the place and the community.”

Matt Amman thinks the site will keep its eclectic feel under the plan proposed by the Circle of Friends.

Those plans include a garden to replace the cracked and aged parking lot with a garden.

“I think that that significance will be maintained under the new usage that has been proposed,” he said. 

Willa Reckart said she played sports in the gym and hung out on the lawn with friends when she was attending school. As such, she acknowledges that the site is a sentimental place. Still, she says the church is not what makes the neighborhood significant.

“On the contrary, [the church] is pretty run down and under-utilized,” she said. “I’ve always wondered how the center point of such a beautiful place had to be something so forlorn.”

Packer stresses that the image painted of the group as unscrupulous developers is simply inaccurate.

“It’s important to keep reminding people that we are grassroots people,” he says. “We’re all working full-time and we’re stretched. We can barely pull this off.”

The group wants to create a co-housing community in which day-to-day duties such as gardening, childcare and cooking are shared.  

He says he wants neighbors to bring their concerns to the Circle of Friends.

“We’re hopeful that they will come to us and we can find a way to resolve the issues,” he says.

Jennifer Smith, a resident of the circles neighborhood who opposes the plans and who wants to see the community center used and expanded, disagrees with the decision that the church lacks historical significance.

“There are countless families that for decades have benefitted from the collective community use,” she said. “My vision of that space is that it would best serve the community operating in a similar fashion.”

The Planning Commission is expected to consider Circle of Friends’ plans within one month. The City Council could consider those recommendations about a month after that, Packer says. 

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