.Route Awakening

News1-GT1537-BusWEBPossible downtown overhaul centered around the Santa Cruz Metro Center continues taking shape

Buses circulate on the ground floor of a large building between Pacific Avenue and Front Street. Outside, lining the street, an assortment of cafes and clothing stores bustle with shoppers. Above the street is a layer of parking, followed by story upon story of apartments ascending 75 feet into the air.

This is a rough outline of the latest incarnation of an evolving vision for downtown Santa Cruz, stretching one long city block from Laurel Street to the Metro Center, in between Pacific Avenue and Front Street.

Just past a narrow paseo, replete with public art and fountains, is another 75-foot complex. Again, the first floor is lined with bustling stores flanked by fashionable restaurants and cafes, and a hive of rental units up above. Down the stairwells, residents scurry to catch a bus on its way to Watsonville or Monterey or San Jose and beyond.

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Earlier this summer, the city of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Metro and private developers agreed to try to make these scenes come to fruition. If they prove successful, it would mean nothing less than a total facelift for lower Pacific Avenue.

“It has great potential to be transformational,” says Mayor Don Lane. “But it is so important we do it well, so we can create a framework for other rental housing projects. If it’s not done well, we’ll lose community support.”

The private development partnership made up of Santa Cruz land-use planner Owen Lawlor and Milpitas-based Devcon Investments will look to construct a commercial/residential complex just north of the Metro station. Devcon now owns the large building that makes up a good chunk of that site.

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz Metro will concentrate on overhauling the station. The plan has made progress since GT last wrote about it in April, although no one can yet say for sure what the possible environmental impact or cost of the undertaking would be.

The council voted unanimously in June to move forward on planning and traffic studies for the Devcon Project, which would dramatically overhaul the entire 4.1-acre parcel—its perimeter defined by the 1010 Pacific Apartments building to the south, Laurel Street to the North and Pacific Avenue and Front Street on the east and west, respectively.

Bonnie Lipscomb, executive director of Santa Cruz’s Economic Development Department, says the city has yet to fully formulate the costs of its share of the project, but it has pledged to take on a third of the costs of the initial environmental analysis of the site.

However, Lipscomb says the project’s density and proximity to public transit make it appealing—so much so that planning officials are currently contemplating a slew of changes to zoning regulations to potentially accommodate the project.

Santa Cruz planning director Juliana Rebagliati says staff is currently “in the process of making zoning changes to basically all of downtown—from Soquel to Laurel and all the way down to the beach,” and they won’t miss a chance to reimagine the town’s center. “We know there is an opportunity to create more density and sustainable development that are so near the transit options,” Rebagliati adds. “We want to allow more height, which would therefore create more density.”

City officials have held a series of public hearings about the proposed changes, which include allowing buildings of up to 75 feet in height.

Supporters like Lane are keen to support the project, in part, out of hopes that it will alleviate a crowded rental market where a low inventory of available units has pushed rental prices sky-high. Some have called the present scenario a full-blown crisis.

“We need greater density when building rental housing,” Lane said. “Specifically, this project put the density where we need it—right downtown. A lot of people, especially young people, want to live downtown. It’s a vibrant place to live and socialize.”

The design-specific elements of the project have yet to be divulged. Lawlor says he and his partners are in the throes of solidifying their plans.

Rebagliati says the city has yet to receive any specifics, but adds that the city does have aesthetic guidelines formulated as part of the Downtown Recovery Plan, after the city had to be rebuilt in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Preliminary plans reveal a call for the Metro Center to be overhauled so that the ground floor, which is slated to host 20 bus bays, will be enclosed within walls, as opposed to its present open format. On top of the enclosed ground floor, the city is proposing to build additional levels that will house both public parking and several affordable housing units.

The plan includes commercial space on the ground floor and a major refurbishment of the Metro Station itself. In conjunction with the public components of the project, Devcon is proposing the construction of a multi-floor building complex capable of housing approximately 300 market-rate units directly adjacent to the Metro Station.

At a council meeting earlier this summer, council members did express concern about some of the project’s elements. Vice Mayor Cynthia Mathews said there is a potential incompatibility with commercial operations, particularly food and beverage outlets, functioning in proximity to a highly active transportation center. “Cafe extensions looking into busy bays is just not a peak experience,” she said during the June council meeting. “Who wants to eat in bus fumes?”

Council member Micah Posner, concerned about ratios of affordable housing relative to market-rate housing, insisted that affordable housing be included in both projects.

People on the ground floor of Pacific and Front have their reservations, as well. Many business owners in the proposed redevelopment space are growing increasingly unsure about their future.

Victor Herrmann is the media services coordinator for Community Television of Santa Cruz County, which is housed in the building Devcon bought for nearly $6 million. He says the organization has decided to move, in part because of the possible construction overhaul. CTV is tentatively slated to move into a new location on River Street in December of this year, Hermann says.

Lynne Achterberg is the executive director of Project Purr, a nonprofit that spays and neuters feral cats and is located in between the proposed Devcon building and the Metro station, says her landlords have not informed her of any endangerment to her location. “We’ve been here two years, and we love being downtown,” Achterberg says. “We love the visibility. We’d like to stay.”

MY WAY OR THE BUS BAY The latest overhaul plans for Metro’s Pacific Station have the buses under a 75-apartment building complete with parking.


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