.Mark Mesiti-Miller’s Vision for Santa Cruz

Mark Mesiti-Miller’s passion for transportation planning in Santa Cruz is perhaps best told by his wife, Donna Murphy.
On a recent Napa getaway, Mesiti-Miller took her on a detour, away from the vineyard tours, to the wine country’s lesser-known draw: its developing rail system and accompanying rail trail.
“It had nothing to do with our trip, but our curiosity,” says Murphy, UC Santa Cruz vice chancellor before she retired in 2013, describing their exploration of how the Napa trail is laid out, and how the stations and railroads interact.
A retired civil engineer, Mesiti-Miller is consumed by his curiosity for housing and transportation. Since selling his firm last year, Mesiti-Miller, a Santa Cruz planning commissioner, has closely studied the developing Santa Cruz Corridor plan, which will aim to increase density on major thoroughfares. He’s spoken during public comment in meetings on a range of topics, like the possible November ballot measure for transportation, and has hosted events to discuss passenger rail in Santa Cruz along the coast.
“His mind’s always kind of gnawing on different issues,” says Murphy. “He reads a lot, and so he tracks these things. If he’s read something about a complete street, then as we’re driving down, he’ll study it. If he’s looking at housing density and we’re driving around town, we’re looking at the scale of buildings, how the roads work, et cetera.”
The planning commission published its General Plan 2030 four years ago, and along with it a corresponding land-use map. Mesiti-Miller’s vision for Santa Cruz, also laid out in the plan, centers around its corridors. These are the city’s commercial hubs where most of the mom and pop shops, drugstores, bakeries and markets are, along Soquel Avenue, Water, Ocean and Mission streets.  
Mesiti-Miller calls for mixed-use development along these thoroughfares, with ground-floor commercial space, and above that, affordable housing.
“The most sustainable way to grow a community is vertically and along its corridors,” says Mesiti-Miller. “It’s called transit-oriented development, or T.O.D., and it tells us what we need are housing units along our corridors.”
As they are now, the corridors aren’t comfortable for pedestrian traffic, says Mesiti-Miller: Soquel Avenue carries around 30,000 cars each day, according to a 2014 report.
“Who wants to walk along Soquel between Morrissey and Capitola Road? Nobody,” says Mesiti-Miller. “There’s no place to park, no place to ride your bike. It’s dangerous. A guy was killed there on his bike a year or two ago.”
Santa Cruz’s busiest streets need wider sidewalks, space for bicycles and places to park them, and trees, he says.
“We need to create neighborhoods along our corridor. How do we do that? Instead of designing our streets for the car, which is what we’ve done, we need to design the streets for the people in those neighborhoods.”
What’s more, Mesiti-Miller says he’s astounded by the gap between the city’s population growth and its relatively stagnant housing growth. Between 2010 and 2015, Santa Cruz’s population grew by more than 4,000 people, to 64,220, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet from 2007 to 2015, only 1,000 new housing units were built in the city, according to a State of the City report from May. (Since 2004, UCSC’s enrollment has increased by 2,700 and the campus has added 2,100 beds. Campus housing has had a 97 percent occupancy rate since 2011, according to the university.)
Meanwhile, the city has an oversupply of single-family homes, which make up two-thirds of Santa Cruz’s housing units. As a result, more people are packing into houses that aren’t meant to be shared, Mesiti-Miller says.
“The technical term for this is ‘unrelated adults living together,’” he says. “It’s strangers living together in houses that are only designed as single-family houses. You go and talk to them, and they say ‘I don’t want to live here. I don’t want to be detached from downtown. I don’t want to be detached from where I want to be spending my time.’
“These are the young people. They’re doing what they can to live in our community, and that means renting a bedroom in a house and sharing a kitchen and living with people you don’t know. You’re living in a neighborhood that you don’t want to be, but that’s what they do.”
Mesiti-Miller, 62, says he traces his interest in affordable housing to 1983, when he moved to Santa Cruz’s eastside from Santa Clara, and it took him six weeks to find a place to live.
The problem is much worse now, says Mesiti-Miller, with 32 percent of people living alone in a city housing system that’s designed for single families and flooded with young people.
“That seems way out of whack with what our community actually needs. If you look around in our community, what we need is smaller, denser, more affordable housing. That’s what we need and we’re going to need that well into the future,” he says.
Mesiti-Miller is also a board member of Friends of the Rail Trail, which supports the construction of a 32-mile biking and walking trail from Davenport to Watsonville along the existing railroad. He wants to see the revitalization of Santa Cruz County’s passenger rail and bus system.
The current transportation system is broken, and Highway 1 congestion affects the entire region’s quality of life, says Mesiti-Miller.
“Who [in Santa Cruz] will say, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, ‘Oh, I think I’ll go for a walk in Nisene Marks.’ Nobody does that. Why? Nobody wants to sit in traffic,” Mesiti-Miller says.
The crux of his vision for Santa Cruz—dense, affordable housing in pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods, and a European-standard public rail and bus system—is the implementation of General Plan 2030. Right now, the city’s planning commission is engaged in updating its zoning codes along its corridors.
“The general plan basically is the document that’s going to allow our community to become the community we want it to be, and it’s going to happen over 20 years, 30 years,” Mesiti-Miller says. “It’s the community that our children are going to inherit, and the people who are moving here are going to inherit.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people in this County do not want high density, and have made a tremendous investment to commute over the hill and live in this beautiful area, away from the “Big City”. Mr. Miller is the only Civil Engineer on the Water Supply Advisory Committee. He spent an over a year on this commission and has not developed, or approved, a specific plan to produce a drop of water. The proposed rail is an economic disaster, and would require huge influx of high density, San Francisco like, developments to support it. Even then, the traveled distances needed with the Train can easily and more effectively covered by METRO or bicycle. I, on the other hand, do have a plan to furnish 8.5 million gallons a day of water along pipelines in the corridor, and cannot be placed inexpensively next to a train. Please vote “NO” on upcoming sales tax measure and tell people like Mr. Miller and Train Boondoggle supporters to move the “Big City” where the trains they so love abound.

  2. Thank you, Mark, for this thoughtful and forward-looking article.
    The era of auto-centric suburban planning is ending and for good reason. We’ve discovered that more and more people, and especially young people, reject the passé “American Dream” of large front and rear yards, a car for every driver, and utter dependency on driving to accomplish the simplest daily tasks. Some of us have lived in transit friendly cities and loved it. More and more a loving or looking for a simpler life with smaller homes and yards and, dare I suggest, no need for an automobile at all. Transit oriented development and pedestrian and bike friendly communities attract economic investment and our civic leaders know this. Both the Santa Cruz Business Council and the Chamber of Commerce support the current vision of building a trail while preserving the corridor for future rail transit, and the kind of sustainable development that will come with it.
    Some of our major employers, Dominican and Plantronics, support the transportation improvement plan with it’s investment in the rail with trail vision, possibly taking a cue from Panasonic North America and others that are taking an active role in supporting the renaissance of smart transit and the shift away from highway commuting.
    http://www.citylab.com/cityfixer/2015/10/how-panasonic-turned-car-commuters-into-transit-riders/412417/

  3. So the comments that are in favor of high-density development are printed in the Good Times paper edition which is widely distributed and the thoughtful comment by Bill Smallman was not printed in the Good Times. Print Bill Smallman’s comment please.

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