During the last week of August the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce hosted what’s called a “Community Leadership Visit” or CLV for short. This was a 3 day/2 night trip all across the Bay Area to study how different communities are addressing issues like housing, transportation and transit, economic development, and even homelessness.
Our trip spanned multiple bridges as we visited Morgan Hill, Willow Glenn, Downtown San Jose, Berkeley, Napa, Santa Rosa, and Redwood City; and heard from nonprofits like SPUR and Bridge Housing; and the land use consultants MIG, based in Berkeley. We were accompanied by many elected officials, City/County Staff, and of course business leaders, including SCCBC Members Peggy Dolgenos and Owen Lawlor (Cruzio and Lawlor LandUse).
But rather than just do a normal summary blog, we wanted to showcase one aspect of this type of trip that is so important: conversation. Because it’s not just what you learn on the trip, so much as who you learn it with and the conversations that arise as a result of what you see. And with that, we wanted to take a lesson from Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight blog, where they transcribe the highlights of the conversation directly, so you the audience can get an understanding of the nuances through the back and forth.
Robert: So let’s get started with Morgan Hill, our first stop, what did we like?
Peggy: I really liked Morgan Hill and what they have done with the downtown. My favorite part was how they renovated the older theater into a really nice hotel and events center. What I found interesting is that they said the catalyst for all of their new development was their award winning parking garage, which while nice, didn’t seem all that special to me. Though I guess it is still a commuter town, and the garage is tucked away.
Owen: I like that the town has managed to develop while still remembering it’s older roots as an agricultural town. You know it must have taken clarity of vision for them to implement something like that. Sometimes I feel that is what Santa Cruz is really missing.
Robert: Well it’s funny you mention that, because I feel that since the town did grow so fast in terms of new development that they almost had a blank slate, which I feel makes the whole visioning process easier. I could be wrong but all of the buildings they showed us looked fairly new, and the all of the restaurants and other amenities were definitely new. I also really liked the hotel in the downtown, and the parking garage Spider.
Peggy: Do we want to talk about their parking garage at all?
Owen: Well I think they did a good job, but their parking needs are different than ours. I don’t think we need as much parking in Santa Cruz.
Robert: That was a common theme the whole trip, reducing parking requirements makes it easier to build housing, and the demand for parking is going down. However, none of the communities we visited had any surface lots available.
Peggy: Why would anyone want surface lots?
Owen: Well usually surface lots are basically just temporary until someone comes along and develops something. Land is so expensive it doesn’t make sense to have a surface lot unless you are waiting for something else.
Peggy: I don’t like surface lots as much as the next person but I am also not sure how I feel about a parking garage…
Owen: What we need to do, as part of a larger visioning process, and I am going to keep harping on this this, the importance of vision and having that larger community discussion, is we need to do an assessment of how much parking we are actually going to need.
Peggy: Not just how much parking we need now either, we need to plan for what we are going to need in the future, and I think it will be a lot less parking.
Robert: I agree, but a parking garage does allow you to consolidate surface lots, so in a way it could be a more efficient strategy in the future for dealing with parking, and would allow us to maximize land.
Peggy: That’s the only reason, consolidating surface lots, where it makes sense.
Owen: We can’t ignore parking, it’s a huge part of how we want our downtown to look and feel.
Peggy: We’ve been through so many discussion recently about parking and Pacific Avenue, one way, two way…
Robert: You the know the City is bringing back Robert Gibs right? The man who did the 2010 retail study.
Peggy: Yea I am not sure if I like that, I worry he wants to turn us into a Midwestern town…
(At this Business Council Marketing and Administrative Coordinator Nikki Bailey shakes her head violently in the corner)
Robert: I am not sure we can do anything to save retail, and I agree with Owen that we need to do a larger visioning process, but how do we deal with those who are misinformed, or even those who just like for political reasons? Good segue to talk about our meeting with SPUR right? The biggest takeaway from that meeting was “Yes, and 10 more” in regards to building more housing right?
Owen: I am not so sure, the other presentation they gave us was just as important. Though let’s be clear, Santa Cruz is in the situation we are in because we have not built enough housing to keep pace with growth.
Robert: The other presentation, oh right, where they told the story of those folks who built their house a long time ago and because of the amenities around it, like jobs, school district, hip coffee shop, etc. their house appreciates a ton in value, despite the owner not doing anything to create that value, and that all coming from community.
Peggy: I don’t know if that holds up so much in Santa Cruz. I see people all across the West Side selling their homes to their own families to try and keep it in the family. Santa Cruz isn’t like San Jose so some of the lessons from that presentation aren’t directly analogous.
Owen: I’m fairly sure the case study they were drawing from was Palo Alto, but it could be any California city in the Bay Area.
Robert: Well I mean I look at Swift Street on the West Side as an example, with all the new poshy restaurants and breweries it has benefited a lot from community visioning. There are good schools here with PCS and Kirby…
Owen: Let’s not forget about Prop 13, which has kept those tax rates low so no one wants to leave…
Peggy: While I can see a lot of what we saw on this trip as being good I can also see how it might scare folks. I mean if you bought your house on the West Side maybe you don’t want to live next to a big dense urban neighborhood. I think a lot of people feel that way and that isn’t wrong. I mean I used to feel a lot more stronger about it than I do now, but only because of trips like these do I see the need for this stuff.
Owen: Well that’s just it, and what also makes us different than a lot of other places and the places we went to, we have always had an environmental ethos in Santa Cruz…
Peggy: And that’s a really good thing!
Owen: It is! It very much is, but we also need to realize that by setting aside the greenbelts like Pogonip and Arana Gulch we also made the conscious decision that we were going to develop the urban core at some point. It’s the next logical step from an environmental perspective.
Peggy: It’s true, we can preserve our neighborhoods, but I think we need to be aware that just because someone is against something doesn’t mean they are wrong. We just need to talk to them more.
Owen: We don’t need to build in their neighborhood, I actually only want to build in the downtown really.
Peggy: Well I was bummed we delayed the Corridors Plan, that seems like the best place to build if you are going to do it anywhere. It reduces cars and is actually better for the environment.
Owen: This is why we so badly need a collective visioning process, because I think we can make the downtown a lot denser without having to sacrifice the single family home neighborhood, but I think…
Peggy: We need to be careful with education versus just telling someone what we are going to be doing.
Owen: Oh I agree, but we also can’t just put up a blank canvass and ask uninformed people to fill it in.
Peggy: Totally agree there…
Owen: They won’t come up with anything that makes sense, they need to know what’s possible.
Peggy: Which is why trips like the CLV are so important, it’s those conversations and the exposure to what others are doing.
Robert: Moving on, how did folks feel about the Union City stop? It was essentially a BART Station on a bunch of polluted land that has been converted to housing. I actually really liked it, but again it was an example of greenfield development, where you literally have a big piece of land to work with. We don’t have that in SC. However, I really did like the affordable housing building.
Peggy: I am not sure I liked it as much. I don’t like that the buildings are separated. Like all the poor people have to go here…
Owen: I really don’t think they see it like that.
Peggy: You think so? You don’t think they ever ask about who lives in what building?
Owen: I honestly think communities like that work a lot better than you think. It’s not like the children from both buildings don’t play with each other. I have built affordable housing for 25-30 years, we need these types of projects to be able to get more units, it’s too expensive to do it another way. And this way they get on site case management, and other things…
Peggy: Yea but I immediately think of housing projects of the 50s-60s, in like New York. That’s why I am such a big supporter of inclusionary zoning.
Owen: But that’s a false dichotomy though.
Peggy: Really because how else can you do it? If they have to live in separate buildings…
Owen: They are only separated by a courtyard.
Peggy: Yes but we don’t want our community to feel separated. I think the way we do inclusionary zoning (IZ) now probably needs to be fixed because it forces the developer to eat the cost. I can also understand that if IZ is not balanced with enough density it makes it so that many projects don’t pencil out, which is bad. What I want is to see is projects where we reward the developer for building more affordability.
Robert: Well I really think the idea of affordable housing has changed dramatically since the 50s-60s, and that we don’t build monolithic towers anymore. We have things like Community Benefits Indexes for amenities like early childcare development, or set aside green spaces, or even public art, which all allow for more density in exchange for affordable housing. And as we saw with the Bridge Housing funding presentation, it’s so hard to develop a portfolio of financing based upon the limited opportunity window of zoning, available tax credits, etc.
Peggy: I guess things have changed a lot, but that’s also our culture here in the Bay Area. Maybe we could take the in lieu fees we are currently getting from projects currently and give them to developers as incentives…
Owen: It’s not enough, I mean it isn’t, but we make it work sometimes. The way to more units, of all levels of affordability is through density, but again that requires visioning about how we can make it work… But I want to address that false dichotomy really quick. Just because affordable housing isn’t built within a project doesn’t mean that it’s going to be in a big high rise place like we used to build. That’s the opposite end of the extreme. We can build affordable units adjacent to another project, we can build them within a project and in a separate building and you wouldn’t even know the difference between the affordable units and the market rate. And many of these projects like the ones Mid-Peninsula is building, these are nice projects, and it’s not just people who qualify that want to live there, trust me.
Robert: We also need to keep in mind who we want to live in these projects, because it’s not just the lowest income families. Half of the City of Santa Cruz qualifies for housing assistance or makes a small enough amount of money to qualify for Measure O/J – keep in mind the younger people who want to live in smaller spaces, keep in mind the people who need assistance like seniors or those coming our of homelessness.
Owen: There is no evidence to support that opposing housing the “haves” v. “have nots” next to each other leads to discriminatory behaviors by the residents.
Peggy: Ok, perhaps it’s not so binary, but I still worry about that.
Robert: So we are running low on time, but the discussion has been solid so we haven’t kept on track with all of the places we have been to. So how about a quick run down about what was your favorite place and why, and biggest takeaways?
Owen: My takeaway this whole time has been the need for a vision. Santa Cruz needs to have difficult conversation with itself about where we see ourselves in the future. Take Napa for instance, my favorite. They used the flooding as a way to start a community conversation about the whole downtown area, which led to the Oxbow park and a bunch of new places.
Peggy: I really liked those open spaces, and the whole way they utilized their river area was really cool. I have different preferences for architecture I must say haha…
Owen: That’s one of those things where ugly is in the eyes of the beholder. Did you like some of those newer buildings though? Outside of the restaurant, we were on I think 5th street, some of those new buildings are really nice.
Peggy: That’s true I really liked some of their newer buildings, especially that hotel they were putting up. Just thinking about Cruzio here for a minute–You know we bought this building, and it was super ugly, being the old Sentinel Building. And it’s still not the best outside, but when we took it over we did our best to make it look good on the inside at least. I guess the point I am trying to make is that architecture is still really important. Like I really didn’t like the architecture of Santa Rosa at all. It just seemed so bland.
Owen: I mean it was and still is an Ag town that also happens to have an urban core. Like everything else we need to have a vision in place if before we start building.
Peggy: Well Santa Rosa is a lesson, because after their earthquake in what the 60s? They started building, and I am sure they had a vision, and their vision then was a bland and quite frankly ugly downtown architecturally. And while I don’t think that will happen hear I do think it warrants a bit of a pumping of the breaks sometimes.
My favorite place was Morgan Hill though, as I stated earlier. My biggest takeaway was that we need more public conversations like this one and more people need to go on these types of trips. People feel threatened and its understandable, but they also need to see that it’s not as bad as they think it is, and that by doing things like the corridors plan it makes it so more people can live here, without really affecting the neighbors.
Robert: My biggest takeaway is that we need to build off what we have already said is our vision. Santa Cruz protected a ton of open spaces 30 years ago and that’s great, but part of that vision was infill development, and we haven’t lived up to that. We can’t keep approaching this issue the same way we have in the past because its not working anymore. We said we wanted to stop growing and that didn’t work, people still came, and now everyone’s suffering the problems of not having the housing or infrastructure to support them, and people are still coming. We need to be proactive, and I think having a realistic conversation about our vision is a logical next step. My only worry is that some in our community will refuse to even have that conversation.
Peggy: We do need community leaders, business leaders, and Council people who are willing to stand up to the “vocal minority” of folks, you know the same 12 people who come to every community meeting and are never happy with anything, though we need to hear them out, we do.
Robert: But they also need to be held accountable for their ideas. Some things don’t work, and we need to make our decisions based upon what we know will work.
Peggy: And that’s why education is so important.