Siri Rodoni polishes out remnants of dirt on one of her pumpkins and adjusts her table to hide the white parking lines on the pavement below.
It’s Wednesday morning, and Rodoni is one of the dozen or so farmers arranging vegetables and produce on tables in an empty parking lot, preparing for the rush of the tote-bag-carrying shoppers who will show up in a few hours.
Every Wednesday for the past 15 years, Rodoni Farms has been selling products at Santa Cruz’s downtown farmers market, located in a parking lot known as Lot 4 on Cedar Street. For six days a week, the nondescript blacktop is used for parking, but on Wednesdays, it transforms into a bustling space for vendors to sell their products.
Recently, the future of the unassuming lot has been catapulted into the local political spotlight, and is at the center of a debate that touches on two sensitive issues in Santa Cruz: affordable housing and community priorities.
The City of Santa Cruz plans to repurpose the lot to make way for a new library, a child care center, a parking garage with 243 spaces and an apartment complex with 124 units of housing, the majority of which will be set aside for low-income residents. The eight-story development known as the Mixed-Use Library Project has been in the works since 2016, and the city says it can break ground as early as 2024 if plans are approved by the City Council in December.
But the group Our Downtown, Our Future has taken aim at these plans via Measure O, which proposes different ways to achieve a new library and more affordable housing—ways that don’t involve a new parking garage or moving the downtown farmers market.
Rick Longinotti, one of the major proponents of Measure O, says that the city’s current vision for Lot 4 is shortsighted, and perpetuates local dependence on cars, even as California lawmakers are taking an increasingly stronger stance against creating new parking space. And, he adds, there is no indication that Santa Cruz residents want the farmers market to move, or that they thought their “Yes” vote on Measure S—a $67 million ballot measure approved by voters in 2016 to upgrade the Santa Cruz Public Libraries system—would produce the towering downtown development.
“I think [the city] is hiding the ball—I think they’re hiding the truth,” Longinotti says.
If Measure O is approved, Santa Cruz’s General Plan and Downtown Plan will be amended to keep the downtown library and farmers market in their current locations. The measure would also outlaw the construction of above-ground parking structures on various city-owned lots, which would instead be prioritized for affordable housing production. Importantly, says Longinotti as we stroll through downtown Santa Cruz on a sunny Monday afternoon, this includes Lot 4—Measure O authorizes, but does not require, the development of affordable housing there.
“It’s wrong to say that we’re not for affordable housing—we want affordable housing,” Longinotti says as we reach the corner of Lincoln and Cedar streets, “but [Lot 4] is an ideal spot for a public plaza.”
A few weeks earlier, standing in Lot 4 as the farmers market sets up for the day, former Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane shakes his head in disbelief at the statement that Longinotti and other Measure O supporters are for affordable housing.
“It makes me crazy to think about that,” Lane says. “We’re making a parking lot and 120 affordable housing apartments with this project, and [Measure O] says they want affordable housing, but they’re stopping us. Measure O would literally stop hundreds of affordable housing units. How is that pro-affordable housing?”
Lane is part of a long list of former and current local politicians—and more than a few librarians—who support the mixed-use library project. They say the affordable housing units, desperately needed in a city recently named the second-most expensive rental market in the country, make the project worthwhile. And they add that the community has had its chance to mold the project through numerous public input workshops.
Yes, there’s a parking garage, Lane says, but it will replace the parking spots currently lost to other projects being built out around the city. And while the farmers market will move, Lane thinks the ongoing discussions between city officials and the farmers market association are the right way to give it a new permanent home.
“[Measure O] has preempted the farmers market itself,” Lane says. “They want the market to be where they want it, end of story.”
Parking and People
A small smile creeps onto Longinotti’s face when he talks about the city’s initial development plans for Lot 4. Back in 2016, the first draft of the new library only included a 640-space parking garage, and he points out that Lane, now the co-chair of affordable housing think tank Housing Santa Cruz County, voted in favor of that project. The omission of housing units and a childcare facility at the onset of the project, Longinotti says, should serve as solid evidence of the project’s true aim.
“It’s about parking,” he says. “It always has been.”
Longinotti accuses the city of “burying” a $100,000 parking study that concluded there was no need for a parking structure. That study, conducted by Nelson/Nygaard, found that there was more than enough parking downtown, but that the city needed to better manage its lots. It was never publicly presented to the City Council after it was published in 2019, Longinotti says.
He questions why the city would elect to use parking revenue funds to build more parking rather than use that money to support affordable housing production. That’s why Measure O also amends the general plan to prioritize surplus parking revenue from the Downtown Parking District for, among other things, the development of affordable housing on the smaller parking lots scattered across the corridor, as identified in the measure.
The question before voters, he says, is simple: “Would you rather spend public money on parking or housing?”
But downtown has changed dramatically since 2019, and with various housing and hotel projects in the pipeline chewing up other parking lots across the corridor, the outlook for public parking could be very different in just a few years, or months.
Just across the street from Lot 4, the old Calvary Church parking lot was recently fenced off as work on a 65-unit affordable housing complex began. And a few blocks over on Front Street, a handful of projects that will bring hundreds of housing units to Santa Cruz have broken ground or are on the verge of doing so. In addition, the City is in the midst of possibly adding another 1,800 units just south of Laurel Street through its Downtown Plan Expansion project.
The forthcoming construction and a new bill that does away with parking minimums on building projects, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom a month ago, will put a squeeze on parking, Lane says. The loss of the Cavalry Church parking lot is already being felt, he says, gesturing toward the streets that are already lined with cars two hours before the start of the farmers market.
Over the past four years, 230 public parking spaces have been lost downtown to make room for the seven new affordable housing projects that have been authorized. The city forfeited another 61 spaces for outdoor dining.
The campaign against Measure O says Longinotti is only telling half the story. While the Nelson/Nygaard study points to poor management, it also recommends creating a new parking supply as the city fulfills other steps laid out in the report—key among them, downtown affordable housing projects. The report concludes that once affordable housing projects downtown implement off-site parking, there will be a need for more spaces.
“Measure O is just repeating their same arguments, even as they fall apart,” says Lane. “It gets knocked down, and they repeat it anyway.”
Nor is he impressed with the measure’s suggestion of other sites for affordable housing.
“You can’t just point to a lot and say affordable housing can go there,” he says.
There are nine city-owned lots that the ballot measure suggests as potential sites for housing projects. According to real estate consulting firm Keyser Martin, which the city hired to examine the viability of the lots the measure put forward, there are only three that could realistically be used for housing projects; the other suggested lots were found to be too small.
In line with city regulations, these lots are already available for city use as affordable housing sites. In fact, the ballot measure’s stipulation that above-ground parking would be eliminated would actually reduce the chances for developing on these lots, according to the Keyser Martin report.
Whether a lot can be transformed into affordable housing is only one small piece of the puzzle, says Lane. It then takes several years to compile funding from various sources and to get enough public agencies on board to see the project to completion. So while the mixed-use library project still needs to secure more than $120 million for the housing portion of the project alone, according to a report to the City Council in September, scrapping it would likely mean the city will have to go through another multi-year community visioning process just to get back to this point.
“They would basically say, ‘Let’s throw this project away and start from scratch somewhere else?’ That’s crazy,” says Lane. “That’s many years of delay, and no guarantee that it even has a good outcome.”
But Longinotti says that the opposition’s bird-in-the-hand argument is nullified because the Parking District is at a deficit, meaning the city won’t be able to finance or issue bonds for the parking garage until it is in good financial condition. It could be several years before this happens, Longinotti says.
“And there’s no guarantee that ever happens,” he adds.
Santa Cruz’s interim spokesperson Eileen Cross tells GT that the Measure O campaign’s claims about the Parking District’s financials are misleading. The district did, indeed, see revenues dip over the past two years, but Cross says this is because the city made the “intentional policy choice” to lower parking rates in downtown to aid businesses during the pandemic.
Cross says revenues have begun to bounce back as pandemic restrictions have waned, and that the city expects to “secure either bond or secure direct financing to complete construction.”
Earlier this month, as voters were starting to receive their ballots, Lookout Santa Cruz reported that city officials and the Santa Cruz Community Farmers Market Board were honing in on an agreement for a permanent location for the downtown market—eyeng Lot 7, at the corner of Cathcart and Front streets, as the primary contender.
But Friday, just weeks before the election, the city and the market announced that, after five years of discussions, a site for the market to call home is still up in the air.
According to a press release from the city, the farmers market unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the city to find the market a permanent home. The city also announced that it has approved more than $1.7 million to fund the construction of a physical structure for the market. A MOU is not legally binding, however, and Lot 7 has not officially been chosen as a new site.
Representatives for the market have said at City Council meetings that they are open to moving locations, and support the library project. But what some vendors have to say is slightly different.
Three of the vendors selling products at the market told GT that even if they supported the project, they were hesitant to support the move. The issue has become so divisive that two farmers declined to talk about it.
Rodoni, who also sells at farmers markets in Felton and Scotts Valley, says the location of the downtown market is not ideal. The downtown location caters less to families, which she says makes the market less community-oriented—and generally worse for business. Meanwhile, parking in downtown Santa Cruz is its own logistical problem. Some days, Rodoni has to park a few blocks away.
Even though she supports the library project, she is aware of the costs that moving the market’s location will have on her own business, based on past experiences. The Scotts Valley farmers market has moved three times since she first started selling.
“Every time you move, it takes away from our income, because it’s hard to get customers to know about the new location,” says Rodoni.
But the farmers market customers that GT spoke with said regardless of the location, they would continue to come out and support the market.
As Jackson Sales, a newcomer to the market, waits in the line at the Rodoni Farms stand, he says he comes to the market because he wants to support local farmers and buy his produce from the source—and that won’t change just because the market moves.
“It’s these people who make the farmers market,” Sales says, motioning to the various vendors passing vegetables and flowers to customers. “It’s not the parking lot.”