.Letter to the Editor: Not a Pretty Picture

Re: “Stroll Models” (GT, 11/3): Thanks to Jacob Pierce for his article and background on the Gibbs report. I moved to this area recently after retiring, so I missed the original report, but it all sounds painfully familiar because I grew up and went to school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, whose story is probably well known to Gibbs even though he wasn’t yet born when most of the drama went down. There were a lot of similarities that Santa Cruzans would do well to consider. A quick summary for local readers:

In the late 1950s, Kalamazoo was looking at a decaying downtown as major local businesses fled to the suburbs, so the city hired Victor Gruen Associates to do a study and propose a modernization plan. Some elements included: a mall on one of the town’s main streets, a “belt way” to route auto traffic around the central business district with several parking structures along it to provide free/cheap parking within walking distance of shops (an idea that Santa Cruz has a lot of trouble with), and which would have surrounded a central public park. It all went down in flames in a 1960 election, when voters failed to approve a 30-year municipal bond to finance initial construction. The mall was built, but it lasted barely a decade before most of the businesses it was intended to save left town. They never returned, and the mall was ripped out. One irony is that if bonds had been issued in 1960, they would have been paid off by 1990, and the downtown would be in much better shape than it is today.

As far as I can tell, Santa Cruz’s downtown is dying, like Kalamazoo’s did. It’s dominated by bars, restaurants, head shops, and tawdry young-women’s clothing boutiques, which appeal mainly to tourists and UCSC students. The department stores and other family-supporting businesses that Gibbs discussed went to 41st Avenue and Capitola Mall long ago. Other businesses went to the sadly neglected Eastside, while still others are fleeing to Aptos, turning Soquel Drive into our own little El Camino Real. Unless local residents can come together on a plan to resuscitate the downtown business district that includes dealing sensibly with housing, automobiles and parking, and light-rail transit, some of us have a pretty clear idea of what Santa Cruz is apt to look like in 20 years, and it’s not a pretty picture. Instead of incessantly squabbling with each other, you folks could have helped to fix this.

Scott B. Marovich


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  1. Welcome to the area.

    Santa Cruz downtown is down, but far from out… And unless we address the real challenges, it will continue to be a hard pass for retailers who would anchor the mall and be a draw for folks out of the area.

    Yes, Santa Cruz downtown is looking pretty sad lately. That pandemic thing has definitely had an impact. Retailers who were already frustrated by high rents, the constant homeless problems, and rampant shoplifting with no law enforcement were quick to punch out. But aren’t those the real problems?

    It sounds like you agree with the idea of closing downtown to traffic. If that’s true, I share that sentiment and would point to the Stanford Shopping Center which is a large outdoor mall. It seems to be thriving despite the fact that one can’t drive up and park in front of every store. Are we so lazy that we can’t walk a little? I don’t think so. Repurposing real estate currently used for cars would allow more kiosk businesses, garden spaces, outdoor seating, and much more. That gets my vote every time.

    You reference the Capitola Mall as one of the destinations of Santa Cruz businesses. I think one visit will change your perspective on that. Ironically, the current owner wants to demolish most of it and turn it into a mixed use space (residential / retail) much like Santa Cruz downtown. A move I also think we should all support.

    However, the west end of 41st avenue has grown into a really great neighborhood. I would also point to Swift st., and Aptos near Niscene Marks as areas that have blossomed over the past few years. Their lower rents and proximity to outdoor activities like biking and beaches have benefitted from the pandemic as much as downtown has suffered from it.

    There is great stuff happening to downtown. The Abbott square project created a fantastic gathering place with food and music. And the completion of the Nanda on Pacific (the last empty lot from the earth quake), Santa Cruz gets 79 more very nice residences and almost 6k sq ft of retail space. The massive redevelopment project at Pacific and Laurel streets will also uplift downtown with 205 apartments and almost 11k sq ft retail space. There are more projects in the pipeline and would encourage everyone to check out the planning department page at https://www.cityofsantacruz.com/government/city-departments/planning-and-community-development/development-projects. This level of investment in our city is a sign of vibrant life and opportunity, not a dying downtown.

    Finally, I walked through the rubble on Pacific Ave in 1989. Most of it was gone, and it took a very long time to come back. But it did, and it will again. The Pacific Garden Mall is a destination regardless of how many retail spaces temporarily sit idle. Come on down and enjoy a slice of pizza, or a coffee, or a poke bowl, or sushi, or whatever makes you happy. And don’t miss Halloween and New Year’s eve when people gather and have fun whether there is an organized event or not… because, well, of course that’s where you go.

    Best regards,


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