Phil Boutelle wasn’t always a transportation nerd.
In his twenties, he was a guy with a saxophone, traveling around the country with his friends. They had a band called Slow Gherkin, a group that soon developed a cult following as icons at the center of Santa Cruz’s ska scene.
Traveling has a way of teaching unexpected lessons—sometimes in urban planning.
“In the ’90s, when we used to tour, you’d go to these cities around the country,” Boutelle remembers when I meet him at Abbott Square. “Sometimes you’d go to a city with a pedestrian mall downtown. And if we’d arrive in the day, we’d say, ‘Oh, what a great place; how different!’ Back before I thought about any of those things, right? We were just kids in a van. And then, most of those downtowns would just empty out and become dead zones and really strange places.”
What Boutelle was beginning to glimpse was that a lot of factors go into creating a healthy downtown ecosystem. For instance, while Fresno’s downtown car-free mall had the right idea when it came to creating a pedestrian atmosphere, it had no housing surrounding it. That meant that no one had much reason to hang around at night. It was that kind of downtown that would fall eerily quiet around dusk, leaving the band to wonder if any music fans were going to make it back downtown for their show that night.
Boulder, Colorado—by contrast—has long had a beloved and thriving pedestrian mall. Unlike other pedestrian malls, it has neighborhoods nearby. It’s always bustling with people, into the evening. Needless to say, it would be difficult for a commercial area to thrive without people.
Boutelle, who now works as a mechanical engineer, still isn’t exactly an expert in transportation or urban planning, and he stresses that whenever I bug him with questions about local policy. He is, however, an avid cyclist and the chair of the Santa Cruz Transportation and Public Works Commission. He is also a dad, one who loves biking downtown with his kids, and who lives in fear of distracted, angry or aggressive drivers who might do harm to a young person on a bike.
Boutelle recalls that, 10 years ago, amid a sluggish economy, the Santa Cruz City Council nearly pivoted and made its downtown much more car-oriented, on the advice of a Michigan-based retail expert. Boutelle was grateful to see it instead head in a different direction. Battles over the future of downtown continued, however, and are still going on today.
When Boutelle was growing up in Santa Cruz, he and his two best friends had all been hit by cars before reaching the seventh grade. Seeing his own kids share his passion for cycling now makes Boutelle excited, but it also puts a pit in his stomach.
“I was even more scared for them than I ever was for myself,” he says.
When the city of Santa Cruz hired Bob Gibbs to conduct a market analysis of the town’s retail economy in 2011, Santa Cruz was in a bit of a funk.
That Santa Cruz from 10 years ago feels, in some ways, like a far-off place—one that’s difficult to remember. Although the town was getting expensive, the words “housing crisis” had not yet slipped into the everyday vernacular.
In other ways, it feels incredibly familiar. Unemployment was in double digits as Santa Cruz County clawed its way back from the Great Recession that began years earlier. The old Borders storefront sat empty, as did the E.C. Rittenhouse building. Local businesses were fighting to survive. Around the country, a general sense of economic strife, combined with frustration at a first-term Democratic president—and an economic system viewed as unfair—led to Occupy movements around the country, including a sprawling camp at San Lorenzo Park—part political movement, part homeless camp.
The mood was one of economic anxiety when Gibbs started making the rounds, talking to Santa Cruz businesses, crunching numbers and compiling them into a report that would spark skepticism, intense disagreement and years of discussion.
For his part, Gibbs, a Harvard instructor, loved Santa Cruz—downtown in particular. He loved that it had ample parking. He loved the architecture. He loved the vibe.
“I was really surprised that most of it had been destroyed by an earthquake, and I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the new buildings were and how much they fit into the fabric of the urbanism,” recalls Gibbs—who is currently working on a separate contract for the city of Scotts Valley.
There are probably a number of reasons for the immediate pushback to the Gibbs report, which recently turned 10 years old.
For one, it would be understandable to bristle with a mix of self-reflection and confusion when hearing an outsider’s observations about one’s own community. At a time when the ethos of the town was “Keep Santa Cruz Weird,” Gibbs reported that Santa Cruz’s shoppers could be summed up in the phrase “urban chic.” This demographic, he outlined, features “professionals that stay physically fit, own Apple computers, drink premium wines and Starbucks coffee,” all while shopping at Nordstrom, Ann Taylor and Macy’s.
In his 100-page report, Gibbs said that Santa Cruz was leaving a lot of money on the table. He reported that 85% of the money Santa Cruzans spent annually on retail—$1.8 billion—was leaking out to other communities. By getting locals to shop more within town, it would be able to capture more of that money, he said.
The most controversial part of Gibbs’ findings was his biggest recommendation. Gibbs said that all of Pacific Avenue should be changed to allow for traffic in both directions.
For two decades, the street had been somewhat of a Byzantine maze—with a mix of traffic going two-way on some blocks, one-way northbound on others and another going one-way southbound. This made pedestrians somewhat of a focal point, but it wasn’t always easy to navigate by car.
Gibbs’ solution? Make traffic go both ways all the way.
The idea initiated a tense argument about how to transform the heart of town. Many activists missed the pre-1989 Pacific Garden Mall, which had been a weaving maze itself. They felt that the street had been over-commercialized. Some actually wanted to see car traffic banned on the street altogether and see it get turned into a pedestrian mall, like the one in Boulder.
However, after Gibbs presented his report at the end of September of 2011, the council looked at the lagging local economy and, the following month, it considered greenlighting a pilot to make Pacific Avenue traffic almost completely two-way in time for the holiday season. Downtown merchants and landowners loved the idea.
For about a week, it looked like a sure thing, but as a precaution, the council decided to get feedback from some departments and two city commissions before deciding whether to finalize the plan. The Fire Department staged a trial run on Pacific with a fire engine and some orange cones, many of which the engine ended up knocking over. Fire officials quickly reported to downtown and city leaders that Pacific Avenue’s traffic could not be rearranged without a dramatic redesign. The initial plan was swiftly scrapped.
The conversation Gibbs kicked off, however, was just getting started.
Discussion of rerouting Pacific Avenue for two-way traffic went away somewhat quietly—but not all that quickly.
The following year, over concerns from the Fire Department, the Downtown Commission voted 5-1 to recommend making Pacific Avenue completely two-way. In the process, the street would have lost 42 car parking spaces, plus six more for bicycles—something that gave downtown merchants pause. And so, with only tepid support from the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz, the plan eventually lost momentum and never went anywhere.
As an alternative, the city explored the idea of instead making Pacific Avenue one-way all in the same direction, which would have resulted in fewer lost parking spaces. But the change would have resulted in the reversal of traffic on local sidestreets, a prospect with uncertain implications that frightened business owners on Walnut Avenue. That concept, too, petered out.
It was at this moment that Boutelle—by now serving on the Transportation and Public Works Commission—began pushing for a different idea. Boutelle and others, like then-Bike Santa Cruz County Executive Director Amelia Conlen, argued that the city should keep car traffic the same, but add a new bike lane that would run in the opposite direction of cars. With the City Council’s blessing, the city did just that, with $47,000 in state grant funding.
Boutelle says the contraflow lanes work and are safe, partly because the speed of car traffic on Pacific is pretty slow. The city did still have to take out a few parking spots in the process, but Boutelle says people must disabuse themselves of the disproven myth that customers in cars are somehow more valuable than those on bikes. One study after another has shown that removing parking to put in a bike lane has no negative impacts—but often a positive one. Boutelle says that, for years, Gibbs’ belief in the benefits of ample parking haunted the city, adding resistance to any idea that might result in losing a few spaces.
Looking back, Gibbs still believes it was a mistake for Santa Cruz not to reroute Pacific for two-way traffic. When I remind him that downtown would have lost a few dozen street parking spots in the process, he says that maybe it would not have been worth it after all.
While Gibbs still believes in car traffic and parking as main drivers for the success of retail, the city of Santa Cruz has mostly zigged where Gibbs zagged.
And during the Covid-19 pandemic, the city has changed lanes altogether. In recent years, Santa Cruz began letting restaurants convert parking spots into parklets for outdoor dining. And during the pandemic, Economic Development has waived parklet fees, making it easier and cheaper than ever to put them in—something more than 40 restaurants have done. (Before the pandemic, only two businesses had parklets, as part of a pilot program.)
Going one step further, the city also shut down a full block—between Cathcart and Soquel—to car traffic to create a new outdoor experience downtown. The crisis of the pandemic created a space to try out new things in local economic development. But the city is mostly getting good feedback and seeing results on the pilot, which has been extended through the end of next year.
“Right now, it’s a very different situation downtown, and we’re acknowledging that,” says Santa Cruz Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb, who adds that Santa Cruz has learned a lot from Gibbs over the past decade. (The city ended up bringing Gibbs back for a 2018 update, which included one-on-one consultations with businesses.)
Lipscomb says that, back in 2011, she and her colleagues knew that Santa Cruz was already experiencing significant retail leakage. The Gibbs report confirmed that, provided some helpful tools and gave a way to talk about the issues with the community, she says.
In recent years, the city has been moving forward with various housing projects. This includes a 205-unit apartment building on Laurel and Pacific, 175 condos on the San Lorenzo River front, a new mixed-use transit Center with affordable housing and potentially a mixed-use library project with housing in it at Lot 4—the current site of the farmers market.
Lipscomb says that more residents living downtown will be a boon for business, as it means more customers. That’s a good thing, especially in a time when local businesses are feeling intense competitive pressure from online companies like Amazon.
“More residents living downtown is a great thing for retail. It’s a great thing for the restaurants,” she explains, “We need more people living downtown who want those basic services—grocery stores, foods, clothing—and can get their basic needs met in a walkable distance. That’s really a good thing, and it’s a good thing for the future of these businesses for decades to come. It’s really important that we invest in downtown and some of our commercial areas with residential that supports that walkability and that ability to get your needs met in the community, so you don’t have to get in your car and drive.”
Despite the new consensus around building more downtown housing, new debates have emerged—for instance, over how much new housing Santa Cruz should really build, how much of it can be income-restricted and subsidized for affordability, and just how quickly Santa Cruz can look to a future with far fewer cars.
The City Council’s current plan is to include 300 parking spaces—less than half the original allotment—in the mixed-use project, which would have affordable housing and a new library. It has the backing of the Santa Cruz County Business Council, Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries and the Downtown Forward group that’s mobilizing around the idea. This route would also allow Santa Cruz to develop other downtown surface lots for additional housing and free up options for a new permanent pavilion for the farmers market, supporters say.
But others have concerns. Last week, the group Our Downtown, Our Future unveiled a ballot measure petition to stop the mixed-use library-apartment-garage project. They say that Santa Cruz should instead build new housing in a different downtown lot.
The latest version of the ballot language does offer a new, if symbolic, olive branch to its opponents, stating that Santa Cruz would be allowed to build a new affordable housing building at the current farmers market site. According to the measure, they must do so as a last resort without virtually any parking, and the petition expresses a strong preference against the idea.
VALLEY GO HOME-BUILDING?
Since he began consulting in Scotts Valley this year, Gibbs has made a new recommendation for the Santa Cruz Mountains that has generated a lot of discussion. And it’s a topic that he avoided when he did his retail analysis for Santa Cruz: construction of new multifamily housing.
For 30 years, Scotts Valley residents have dreamed of having their own town center—part community shopping mall, part civic space. But plans repeatedly fell apart year after year. The Scotts Valley City Council is taking one more swing at it, and everyone involved wants this to be their last time around this public policy carousel. The planned center would connect Nob Hill Foods to Target, with a Post Office, transit center and library all nearby. It’s currently just a patch of land with some potential. “We get one shot at this, and we want to do it right,” Scotts Valley Mayor Derek Timm says.
That’s why earlier this year, then-City Manager Tina Friend hired Gibbs to come in, do a study and share his thoughts. Friend first met Gibbs when she was working for the city manager’s office in Santa Cruz on his first report.
Gibbs says that Scotts Valley will need to plan more housing in its town center if it wants to see it thrive—for the same reason that civic leaders in Santa Cruz are now excited about their own building boom downtown: local businesses need customers.
When I ask Gibbs why he’s recommending new housing in Scotts Valley, but did not do so for downtown Santa Cruz a decade ago, the details are difficult for him to pin down 10 years later. He initially says that he sensed there was resistance to new housing construction—a factor that Lipscomb tells me was definitely in play in 2011. Then he says that such an analysis would have been outside the scope of work.
In any case, the pushback to new apartments and condos in Scotts Valley has Gibbs scratching his head. Many Scotts Valley residents would love to downsize into a smaller home, he explains, and they tell him as much. But they also don’t want new construction.
“For themselves, they want a new house and a new kitchen and a new bathroom, but they don’t want any new housing built. Figure that one out. We hear that people don’t like it the way it is, but they don’t want it to change,” Gibbs says. “We hear that all the time.”
Longtime Councilmember Donna Lind says that, on a policy level, part of the resistance to new housing stems from the fact that Scotts Valley is locked in at a particularly low property tax rate, even by Californian standards. So the city sees less revenue from development of land than others do. While housing isn’t her priority, she is open to seeing a bigger housing development if it supports a thriving retail center.
As it is, Scotts Valley is already drawing a lot of visitors from the city of Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz is a destination for people driving down from Scotts Valley.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Gibbs says. “In Scotts Valley, they’re looking for an urban experience that Santa Cruz offers. So if they want to go out to dinner, it’s a lot more interesting to go there than it is to go to a strip center. Coming from Santa Cruz, I think people like the convenience of the parking in Scotts Valley and just the perception that the stores are newer or fresher. They’re kind of driving past each other.”
Due to the pandemic, Gibbs has been doing all his work for Scotts Valley remotely.
On his trips to the city of Santa Cruz in years past, Gibbs certainly heard complaints from downtown businesses about transportation and homelessness and the overall economy. But none of them ever said they would prefer to be in the Capitola Mall.
They all viewed downtown as the place to be.
“I asked every one, given the choice would you reopen in this location? And every business owner said yes,” Gibbs says. “They’d much rather be there than out in the mall. You really don’t hear that. Usually, business owners say that they’d rather be somewhere else.”