.How Tall Will We Go?

The proposed Clocktower housing project could be the county’s highest building

When the Town Clock was dedicated in 1976, it represented Santa Cruzans’ hopes for the future and recalled memories of turn-of-the-century Pacific Avenue when trolleys lumbered by and the clock sat atop the Odd Fellows Building.

On March 4, the day before the primary election, the local developer Workbench submitted a pre-application plan to the City of Santa Cruz for a massive 18-story, 260 apartment building at the former site of Santa Cruz County Bank and the Rush Inn. 

The Clocktower Center would be the tallest building in the county and most likely the tallest building ever submitted to the city, according to Planning Director Lee Butler. 

The next morning the clock rang and voters quashed Measure M by a 60-40 margin. The measure would have required an election for buildings taller than the city’s current limit of 5 to 8 stories depending on where they are located, and would have raised the number of affordable units from 20% to 25%. 

The failure of Measure M points to the public’s appetite for more housing, according to electeds, city officials and developers. 

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“The critical and pretty utter defeat of Measure M showed us that we are not alone in our effort to solve this crisis,” said Tim Gordin of Workbench. “There are so many people in the city who are supportive of new projects and whose voices were really heard through that vote.”

Others disagreed. They went to reddit and Nextdoor to say they felt misled by the opponents of Measure M who promised no 18-story buildings in the run-up to the election. Former Mayor Don Lane accused proponents of Measure M of “scaremongering.”

Largely missing from the public debate over Measure M was the issue of the state’s density bonus law which makes local zoning codes seemingly impotent to stop high-soaring projects if certain affordability requirements are met. In Santa Cruz, almost all tall projects could be permitted because of the city’s 20% affordable-inclusionary rate, according to Butler. This would have almost certainly made Measure M ineffective to stop this project.

California law incentivizes affordable housing through density bonuses which allow developers to build taller than the city’s height limits. Every city is required to submit to the state a Housing Element that shows how the city expects to reach its housing goals as set by the Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA). This process is done in cycles and a new cycle started in 2023. 

For the Clocktower Center, Workbench is applying a new density bonus law, effective January 1, which allows it to build 100 percent more units because it will reach the 24% requirement for affordable units. This is why the project can reach 18 stories. 

The Clocktower Center is symbolic of the new era of development in the city. 

There are currently 2,830 housing units in 47 proposals, plus as many as 260 Clocktower units, proposed for the city in various stages of approval. This is approximately 75% of the city’s RHNA goal set by the state that ends in 2031. 

Two other significant projects have been proposed for the Westside in recent weeks, both on Almar Avenue. One submitted by Workbench at 831 Almar is for a six-story, 120 apartment commercial and industrial space for “students and workers” who will be able to use the rail-trail. A 50% density bonus is being invoked. Also because projects located within half a mile of a transit stop don’t have to include parking, Workbench doesn’t  have to comply with minimum parking requirements.

At 844 Almar, a three-story 42 low-income unit rental building is proposed by CRP Affordable Housing. The triangle-shaped lot across from Safeway is owned by the Rittenhouse-Melrose family. Plans request a 54% density bonus for the site.

The change to Santa Cruz’s streetscape from Downtown to the Westside will be immense.

“Whatever settles out on this Town Clock project and other projects around town, may it be the Food Bin, wherever it may be, what is undeniable is that Santa Cruz will change rather substantially, buildings will be taller, buildings will be denser,” said Mayor Keeley.

Projects like the ones on Almar are mainly due to the new regulatory environment, according to Butler. Almost as important are the high rents caused by the housing shortage that make landlords salivate.

This new era of development is characterized by developers overwhelmingly proposing rental projects instead of condominiums, according to Butler, the planning director.

“From the early 2000s to 2017 or so the only rental projects that were coming through the city were 100% affordable and all the other projects were ownership. It has very much flipped,” said Butler. 

The city will look at encouraging developers to build more owned condominiums to balance the increase in rental housing. 

Developers are confident their projects can get built because of the city’s need to fulfill state housing requirements. High rents don’t hurt either. At the Anton Pacific that is set to begin leasing in June, a 500 square foot studio is asking for $2,977

Ironically, Santa Cruz was part of the 6% minority of California cities to fulfill the state’s last housing requirements.

According to the Downtown Plan, updated in October 2023, building height is limited to 35 feet in the North Pacific Area of Downtown. Development may be allowed “to a maximum height of 50 feet (4 stories)” where the Clocktower is proposed if approved by the city council. The 18-story proposal could be almost 200 feet tall.

“It is somewhere between naive and irresponsible to put that 16 or 18 story proposal out there,” said Doug Engfer, ex-water commissioner and homeless garden board member. “I guess charitably the big building is more of a red herring and the eight story building is really what they intend to build.”

Gordin insists it is a serious proposal to alleviate the housing crisis and contribute to urban lifestyles that are more fun and less detrimental to the planet. Moreover they could still go 20% larger.

“Hopefully people understand our viewpoints. Measure M or not we could have submitted two days later, two days before, one month before, one month later it doesn’t matter. This is the project we can do currently,” said Gordin.


The Clocktower project has not been evaluated to see if it fits “city design and site development standards,” per the request of Workbench, however it meets the requirements of SB 330, a law that prevents the city from trying to alter the project.

When the city passed the South of Laurel expansion to the Downtown Plan in June 2022, the change allowed for buildings of exceptional height. A single building could have risen 225 feet by the Warriors arena. The furor from the city’s perceived overreach led to the “Housing for People initiative.” In response, Keeley, who had recently been elected as the first at-large mayor in Santa Cruz history, led a political compromise to shrink maximum building heights from 18 to 12 stories. 

Keeley has gotten emails about the Clocktower building but this time around he is not sure there is much the city can do. In the big picture, the state has taken power from cities on zoning issues. Still the city can meet its housing needs without towers, according to Keeley.

Council member Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson agreed and said that the project “is out of scale for the community” and “we can meet our goals without towers and we have outlined how in our recently certified housing element.”

Susie O’Hara, who will represent District 5 when she is sworn in November, doesn’t think “anyone in Santa Cruz reasonably believes that the proposed project fits the scale of that corner.” When she is on the council she will “proactively engage with developers like Workbench to propose projects that don’t completely upend the progress we’ve made as a community.”


  1. If Council members actually push back on the Clocktower project, I will be very surprised. Isn’t there a conflict of interest when Workbench’s Tim Gordin is on the city’s Planning Commission?

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    • Tim Gordin of Workbench is not on the city’s Planning Commission. Timerie Gordon, founding partner of Nielsen Studios, is.

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    • Tim Gordin is on the county’s Planning Commission, not the city’s. He was appointed by Manu Koenig.

      Fun fact: Sibley Simon is co-owner of Workbench. His wife is Nina Simon, former director of the MAH.

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  2. Im all for city density and walkable city infrastructure. What we need is Rent Control that stops greedy landlords from up charging 9.9% every year and removing good tenants from their homes. A studio apartment should NOT be over $2k that is ridiculous. Who is that FOR? Theres good people who work service jobs in this city that are getting pushed out. I get paid well at my insurance job and I still cant afford a 1 bedroom apartment with my husbands income combined.

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  3. Puke, towers will ruin Santa Cruz. It’s bad enough all the gangs that have moved in. I’m just a visitor and know that… I won’t visit if this is the case. I quit visiting SF since it’s so gross now too. What a shame. Go ahead and change it to a sardine rack, like everything else, so out of touch with what’s affordable to Californians. 3000. a month for a closet sounds more like New York…

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  4. I agree that this project is out of scale with the community and it gives those of us trying to find real solutions for affordable housing a bad name. I’m proud to advocate for more housing downtown, particularly affordable housing, but please, Workbench, be reasonable. Proposals like this are indefensible and make it harder for the community to come together.

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    • They’ll want credit for being reasonable when they lower it to 14 or 12 stories.

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  5. 18 story buildings? Downtown Santa Cruz? What problem are we trying to solve? Locals are being pushed out because they can’t afford the rents (the most expensive per capita in the U.S) and builders are taking advantage of State laws for whose benefit? Their own, obviously. Additionally, taking advantage and skirting the parking requirement we will have created yet another problem. Those who can afford exorbitant rents are likely NOT working locally. As we have no practical mass transit to commute to the valley, people WILL have cars. Where are they going to park? How will our outdated infrastructure accommodate the many hundreds of new residents? My take is someone is getting greedy and taking advantage of the situation. Why can’t City Council encourage a more moderate approach? No one wants an 18 story building right by the entrance of town, literally dwarfing the Town Clock, blocking out the sun permanently for all local residents. BTW, classifying units as “low income” does NOTHING to help the unemployed and/or homeless people in our city. I’m all for growth and change, it is inevitable, but the obvious glut and greed are all to evident with these insane proposals. Who benefits?

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  6. It is lucrative and feasible to build housing that conforms to the sensibility and culture of the beach town that is Santa Cruz, not a mini-San Francisco. The West side projects make more sense preserving the idea of a bustling downtown not dominated by monoliths, unfriendly to locals and tourists alike, all while providing the much needed housing. AND of course,we need a kind of rent control that incorporates the landlord, tenant, and resident community interests to maintain the diverse, affordable and public benefits of living in a desirable area. The city and county governments need to join the 94% of the non-compliant local entities to push back on the State usurping local rights of control over their assets, resources, and character. We do not have to accept this draconian power grab by developers for profit not for affordable housing.

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  7. Toyota. You(no on M voters) asked for it, you got it, Toyota! Measure M was telling the truth, no voters can rejoice in towers covering the entire town. Thanks a lot. Not.

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  8. Workbench falsely claims to be a savior for the community (and the Good Times PR piece on them a few weeks ago was very disappointing). They feel entitled to completely ignore what makes sense or is reasonable for our community-pushing 2 INCH setbacks from single family homes, ignoring the environment and the community, building into riparian corridors at the Food Bin on LaurelSt at Mission St (public hearing calling out their shady tactics is Tuesday after 7pm at City Hall). Doing creative math to get away with less than even 15% of affordable units. It is beyond frustrating. Laird, Pellerin, Addis, + was this what you thought would happen? Please clean up state law so developers aren’t given the keys to the city.

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  9. All I can say is that I am sure glad that I am moving out of Santa Cruz. Maybe the name should be changed to Santa Sky. Or Santa Crudd. The fools rule. I have been a Landlady for five decades and that much low income concentrated will spread all sorts of undesirable issues like crime drugs and mischief. And once there is a super majority of renters to owners. There will be as they say ‘The sky is the limit’. If you want to know what downtown SC is going to look like in 20 years go look at downtown SFO. 18 stories try 180 stories. Why stop short now. I say that the fools have voted lets go for 300 stories. My one bedrooms go for under 2k a month. I am all for this one BR 3k imaginable affordable housing. And if you think building more housing will make things cheaper. Tell that to all the friends of the new housed people who will add to the demand for housing.

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  10. Horrible! No, no, no! I hate to see santa cruz become silicon valley beach south. Big developments already ruined all the old Silicon Valley neighborhoofs..Los Gatos, Saratoga, Campbell, Glen Park, Mountainview, you name it…no concern over community, water, traffic, etc.,or affordability. Ruining the small downtown vibe. Just big expensive highrise condos w/ expensive trendy restaurants on bottom floors. Forcing out lower paying tenants out of any
    affordable housing .
    Just take a drive over the hill to any of the towns that used to have their own village feel. — now they are almost all identical– same tall walls of condos/apartments with retail underneath.

    This will ruin what little is left of the Santa Cruz vibe. Will not improve affordability for locals, just make it more of a bedroom/weekend home for rich Silicon Valley techies, that will omly bring more trendy housing and restaurants that us locals can’t afford

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  11. Correction: Keeley was not the “first at-large Mayor.” The first was William F. Cooper 1876-78 and all the mayors since represented the city “at-large.” What you mean my dear sir is “first mayor directly voted for by the people since 1943.”

    I must remark that this tower represents how Santa Cruz was understood at “turn-of-the-century.” “Progress” and “growth” were valorized like “diversity” and “afforability” are now until these dreams were thwarted by the burning of the old Neptune Casino and the 1907 Panic. Long before the slow-growth politics of the 1970s could be conceived, let alone rebuked as NIMBY, Santa Cruz was on course to be a real second city to the City, San Francisco.

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    • Thanks for correcting that, immediately noticed myself. First city-elected mayor, instead of from what used to be an all at-large City Council.

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  12. Can public services such as fire and police support such high density buildings? Can transit? Adding cars and parking enough to support such a large project doesn’t make sense. How will the building’s residents get to school and work?
    The housing is needed. We, as citizens of Santa Cruz, will be asked to pick up the tab to support our new neighbors. In a super dense environment, do have the means to meet this challenge?

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    • Under the policy railroaded by Gavin Newsom they are immune from parking requirements, because they’re near the new Metro Center and will all be riding the bus, right? (Ha)

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  13. By piously declaring itself a “sanctuary city,” Santa Cruz literally invites everyone on Earth to move here — and be rewarded for it.

    Who could’ve possibly known that results in sisyphean growth?

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  14. Has everyone in Santa Cruz lost their collective minds? Being progressive doesn’t mean deaf, blind, and stupid. Why do you think it’s necessary to destroy Santa Cruz to save it? Yes, we need more affordable housing and no we don’t need high rise buildings. These socalled city leaders need to be replaced with urban planners, sociologists, and qualified architects who are schooled in the history of the central coast and Santa.Cruz’s placement within it. A regional perspective is also required.
    The governor has his addenda and we need to articulate ours!

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