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May 24th
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Neighborhood Watch

victorianTwenty-year plan for Ocean Street in jeopardy

The corner of Ocean and Barson streets in Santa Cruz is flooded with tourist traffic in the summer, and drowned by average rainfall most winters (although this year has been dry). But the state's decision to close the more than 400 redevelopment agencies across California, including Santa Cruz’s, could mean that residents of the Lower Ocean neighborhood have to wait more than a generation for much-needed improvements around their homes.

The city's redevelopment agency has 37 projects listed as “under way,” meaning they are already funded. However, their ambitious 20-year plan for the Ocean Street area is an example of how unclear the road forward is, even for those items pegged as under way. The city currently has $2.5 million in bonds to spend on this project over the next five years. But City Councilmember David Terrazas says that's a small fraction of the money needed to complete the many ideas in the Ocean Street Area Concept, which was developed by Berkeley consulting group Design, Community and Environment.

The “concept” includes plans such as building higher quality housing, widening the road, and erecting a convention-worthy hotel on the street. Terrazas is confident the money will be found but says that prioritizing these phases is crucial. His top priority is to revamp the north end of the 1.2-mile stretch, because it is the first view most visitors get of Santa Cruz.

Terrazas says that improving access and encouraging new businesses to open at the “gateway to the city” will spark a revenue stream that will pay for revitalization closer to the San Lorenzo River.

The group Neighbors Of Lower Ocean (NOLO) has been pushing for improvements on that end of the street since 1994, according to Yolanda Henry, executive director of the area’s La Familia Center, notes that new revenue may not be needed right away because most residents want relatively inexpensive changes. She cites a recent NOLO survey, which asked residents what they’d most like to see. “Increased street lighting and addressing code violations in rentals topped their list,” she says. “Many of these changes may not cost a lot to improve the situation.”

Many of the rentals in the neighborhood are conversions of old hotels and are in dire need of repairs. Henry says that this issue could be solved by the city strictly enforcing building codes already on the books. NOLO has been working closely with the city’s housing and community development manager, Carol Berg, to take on this issue. The Sleep Tight Motel at 127 Ocean St. was fined for cockroach infestation in January as part of a new code enforcement effort.

“Business owners would repair their buildings to protect their investment” if codes were more strictly enforced, says Henry. “If you own several rentals you should do the same and make sure it's a safe home.”

Another centerpiece to the plan for new revenue for the area is a $1.7 million “wayfinding” effort to lay out new highway and surface street signs. This is also on the list of currently funded projects. Terrazas says the new signs will show people how to explore the entire area and spark business activity outside of the beach area.

news1-2The Ocean Street Area Concept plan, which includes several improvements to the area, is slated to move forward despite the closure of the local Redevelopment Agency. However, how it will unfold (and when) is unclear. “We have so much to offer in this community,” he says. “It will allow people to discover the diverse and unique shopping districts ...  from Soquel to the Westside.” This claim was reinforced in a retail study on Santa Cruz published by Gibbs Planning Group in 2011.

Bonnie Lipscomb, executive director of the Economic Development Department and former RDA director, agrees that tourists finding other neighborhoods is key to raising cash through sales tax, the opening of new businesses, and luring visitors year round.

“Many people get to the beach and don't even know we have a downtown,” she says. “And getting to the beach is not very easy, either, because Ocean Street doesn't lead easily to the ocean.”

Both officials believe the wayfinding effort would help replace the $22 million stripped from city hands by Assembly Bill 126 (ABX 126), the 2011 law that declared redevelopment agencies statewide unconstitutional.

Gov. Jerry Brown says he abolished the agencies because they had funded projects that had little benefit to their communities. Their stated purpose of redevelopment agencies is to “eliminate blight” in underdeveloped areas and make them more economically competitive. However, agencies in some cities and counties had subsidized construction of stadiums and large business developments that the governor argued had no clear benefit to their communities. Lipscomb says this didn't happen in Santa Cruz and it's unfortunate that the actions of a few cities caused all redevelopment agencies to be wiped out.

“We have a very transparent agency,” Lipscomb says. “There are city council hearings on all of our plans, and anyone can get online and see our reports and five year plans at the economic development website.”

The state's other motive was seizing $1.7 billion from more than 400 agencies to help balance California's budget deficit. ABX 127, which was passed at the same time as ABX 126, gave agencies the chance to pay a fee to continue operations. Several cities and counties then sued the state saying the fee amounted to ransom.

The state ruled that both redevelopment agencies and the ransom plan were unconstitutional. Despite Santa Cruz's refrain from the lawsuit, it was left with no choice but to close down its redevelopment operation. This task alone is estimated to cost $250,000 —a hefty chunk of change considering the city has been facing annual budget deficits for four years running. The closure cost involves securing funding to maintain contracts already in progress and for those planned in the five-year plan.

Lipscomb says, however, that Santa Cruz is better off than most places in the state because the Public Works and Housing and Urban Development departments played major roles in housing and road projects, with the agency filling funding gaps. The city itself is set to become the “successor agency” to redevelopment, with various departments fully taking over those duties.

Beach Flats Community Center Program Coordinator Reyna Ruiz says the redevelopment agency was critical to boosting the quality of life in her neighborhood, and that change is possible if people patiently continue pushing local officials. She is very happy that the improvements made didn't result in costs rising too much in the Beach Flats, and that many of the residents were able to move back after being temporarily relocated.

“It took about 20 years to get the Beach Flats to the point it's at now,” Ruiz says. “It took a lot of strategic partnerships, and redevelopment was a huge part of that.” 

Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Alexander P., March 09, 2012
I live in the place for sometime when I was still a kid, about 4th grade and remember when we decided to move into another place. I miss the place but probably we should hope for the best for the place.

california real estate pre license
written by Coco Faulk, February 25, 2012
I too grew up in this neighborhood (on & off), as well as helped my adult sister move into (as a better place) and out of (to a better place) since 1972. It is a richly diverse neighborhood inundated with children, poverty, small business owners, wonderful families, community organization as well as economic, alcohol, drug and co-addiction problems. The BIG money is NOT needed for these problems and they exist in every city. Please never forget all the children that do come from these neighborhoods and their parents (no longer children struggling to survive, but full adults expected to know how). Many reasons we all struggle to do better is that we are simply struggling to survive due to all of the issues cited above.
written by Steve Hartman, February 22, 2012
First you should know, in 1955 my mom owned a little coffee shop (the Copper Kitchen) located in the structure known as Ocean-Barson Market. It had two separate entrances, the front door on Ocean and a side door between the Market building and the building next door. We (Mom and I) also lived on the roof of the market in a single wall (1X12's) one room shack where I could see stars from my bed at night.

Two points. First I was born in Santa Cruz dirt poor and not with a gold, silver, or even copper spoon in my mouth, as inferred by many of my detractors in the past. Second, I grew up in that neighborhood for several years and know it better than most.

This particular part of town has always held the poorer class of residents. The other thing it has always had is the beach traffic in to town.

Now however, we are open to a new choice. We just bought a train and several miles of track. While I personally think this was a near total waste of taxpayer dollars, there is one possible benefit that I'll share with you.

You see, the city now owns right-of-way - not just across the tracks but the tracks themselves.
Now let's direct our attention to the tracks between Laurel St. and Beach St. I think the city should look at the possibility of building a road between the two using the train trains as their guide.

Traffic could stay on the freeway all the way to Mission St. Then tourists would then cross Mission, drop right down on to Chestnut with a straight shot to the Beach right underneath the tresle and on to the beach.
Currently beach traffic uses Ocean St. both ways. In the summer on warm days the city is virtually cut in half because of backed up traffic. What if traffic came in on Chestnut St. and went out on Ocean St.

Traffic coming in to town would then only be a couple of blocks from downtown to spend their money. Trucks that have been used for track maintenance use both railroad tracks and roads. They could also pull passenger trams from downtown to the beach using those same railroad tracks to get to the beach while using Washington St. to Pacific Ave. to return. A buck a ride would help fill city coffers in the summer time and give both beach and town guests a chance to get out and about without the need for parking spaces or directions.

I think the city is missing a golden opportunity.
written by Razer Ray, February 21, 2012
Why don't they just say "We're having a problem. The city of Santa Cruz was going to make the current working class residents of lower Ocean street homeless like we've done with so many other non-rich people who live here but Jerry Brown dismantled the 'redevelopment' agencies."
written by Yolanda Henry, February 16, 2012
I want to clarify two things, the survey, was for a Neighborhood Revitalization Service Area not a NOLO survey and while housing was on the survey, the survey asked about what services they would like to see in the neighborhood or concerns they had about their neighborhood. The responses included more youth programs, more lighting, less drug dealing and safe housing.
Resources are needed to safe and affordable housing in this neighborhood.

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