Santa Cruz looks at filling the last remaining hole left downtown by the Loma Prieta Earthquake
It’s been 22 years since one of the most destructive earthquakes in our nation’s history rocked the foundations of Santa Cruz. Nowhere, perhaps, was that devastation more acutely felt than downtown on Pacific Avenue, where the collapse of the historic Pacific Garden Mall killed three of the six people who lost their lives in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Though the 6.9 magnitude quake lasted only 10 to 15 seconds, the destruction it wreaked can still be seen today. Destruction is fast—it’s recovery that takes time. But despite the recent economic downturn in our country and state, the final touch to restoring the face of Pacific Avenue is starting to get under way.
“It’s been 20 years since the earthquake,” says Mayor Ryan Coonerty. “We’ve worked hard to rebuild and that’s the last piece left.”
The piece of land that Coonerty refers to is the lot at the north end of Pacific Avenue, at 1547-49 Pacific Ave. and 1110 Cedar St. The lot is mostly vacant, the last remnant of downtown vacancy that is a direct result of the Loma Prieta quake.
A centrally located spot, the lot has housed several companies, including Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, Kelly’s Bakery, Asian Rose, and Oswald’s. All of these companies relocated to other parts of the city, and all (with the exception of Asian Rose, which moved in with its sister establishment, Malabar) are still in operation.
Coonerty remembers when Bookshop, his family’s business, was located on the site, as well as when it was destroyed in the earthquake. Though the owners had insurance, the rebuild never happened and the bookstore moved to its current location close by on Pacific Avenue. Since then, the city has been trying to rebuild on the optimal piece of real estate but has faced several obstacles.
On Thursday, May 5 the Planning Commission recommended that the city
council adopt a Mitigated Negative Declaration (meaning that they would agree that there is no apparent evidence to suggest a negative impact on the environment as a result of construction) and approve a Development Agreement based on findings to continue consideration of Design and Planned Development Permits for a building in that spot. While this may not seem like a huge step forward, it is a start, and in the downtown area of Santa Cruz that’s saying something. The building, now in the beginning final stages of planning as a five-story residential/retail unit, was originally approved as a seven-story building with upscale senior residences upstairs and retail downstairs.
“As soon as we approved it [the first time] the housing market collapsed,” says Coonerty. “Now we’ve been through a couple iterations and are ready to move forward.”
In addition to the financial challenges facing construction downtown there are also aesthetic and structural guidelines that must be strictly adhered to. The Downtown Recovery Plan (DRP) that was adopted in 1991 to address the reconstruction of downtown states:
“As a result of the earthquake, much of downtown will be rebuilt in a single generation. This puts a particular burden on the Recovery Plan and its design guidelines to maintain the unique townscape character and to avoid the creation of monolithic ‘projects’ that destroy the human scale and pedestrian quality of the downtown.”
Part of these guidelines include an ordinance stating buildings may not exceeding five stories, or 50 feet high, as to not cast Pacific Avenue’s popular promenade in perpetual shade. The DRP also requires new buildings in the neighborhood to use architectural styles that “emphasize a human scale and warmth that provides a common vocabulary,” an ambiguously poetic bit of building code that could be interpreted in any number of ways by those opposed to a project.
It has been a long time coming, but the first (of many, admittedly) hoops have been jumped through and in a town with a very vocal and civically minded populace the new five-story project is uniquely unopposed. The building itself will be comprised of 66 to 70 condominium units above a total of 4,510 square feet of commercial retail space and a parking area with 66 spaces.
“They call this one the missing tooth in the smile of Downtown Santa Cruz,” says William Brooks, president and CEO of Brooks Properties who is representing owners of the lot, Park Pacific LLC, with Norman Schwartz. “I’m trying to fill that hole so we can finish up the last build that was a consequence of the earthquake.”
The building has changed since its first imagining, scaling down in height and reducing the number of units proposed to better fit a troubled city budget. The upside of this is that the units themselves will be more affordable than was originally thought.
“We redesigned the units so they’re a little smaller than the previous units, will make economic sense, and will service the rank and file type of folks,” says Brooks. “It will have a lower price point whereas the old building would have had a much higher price point.”
However, former city councilmember Mike Rotkin counters that making the new housing cheaper isn’t necessarily a benefit for downtown. “It no longer guarantees to bring lots of discretionary income to downtown,” as the high-end senior living would have, he writes to GT via email. “Almost all of the housing we have built downtown after the earthquake—and there was quite a bit—was for low-income residents who have little in the way of discretionary income.”
He does, however, agree that the changes to the project have made it less contentious. Part of the success of this proposal so far no doubt lies in the benignity of the space. Unlike the five-story parking garage once proposed for Cathcart and Cedar streets that would have displaced the beloved farmers’ market, this building faces no such obstacle. Also, by creating more housing downtown, the city is promoting a greener Santa Cruz by further centralizing the populace, if only by a small degree.
Also, while it’s been 22 years in the making, it would mean that Downtown Santa Cruz would finally mend the scars left by the ’89 quake.