Santa Cruz mayoral candidates speak against downtown expansion plan
Both feel the project needs to be reevaluated
SANTA CRUZ — With less than two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, Santa Cruz mayoral candidates spoke out on the city’s plan to redevelop the 29-acre neighborhood south of Laurel Street in Santa Cruz with highrise buildings up to 175 feet tall.
Fred Keeley and Joy Schendledecker will meet in the first directly elected race for the mayor of Santa Cruz.
The city’s proposed project aims to transform the existing neighborhood into an entertainment district that would make it financially viable for the construction of a permanent Santa Cruz Warriors arena, fill state-mandated housing quotas and generate more tax revenue for the city.
Keeley made a recent public announcement that he recommends the city make changes to the proposed plan. He said that the proposed highrise buildings south of Laurel Street are one of the top concerns he has heard from city residents on the campaign trail.
“The community is simply not going to allow massive buildings to be built,” Keeley said. “There will be an initiative or a recall, or something like that, if the city keeps marching down that path.”
Schendledecker said she believes that Keeley’s announcement to change the plan is nothing more than a publicity stunt by the political veteran, and his proposed amendments to the downtown expansion plan are “tone deaf to the concerns of community members.”
The Santa Cruz City Council passed a motion in June to begin an environmental impact report (EIR) on the proposed expansion. According to the notice of preparation of the report, the EIR would examine the effects of the addition of “a minimum of 1,800 housing units and 60,000 square feet of gross commercial area,” with proposed buildings up to 175 feet or about 16 stories. The proposed permanent arena outlined in the EIR is estimated at 180,000 square feet or about 4.1 acres.
Keeley’s tentative plan is to scrap the current EIR, which proposes a minimum of 1,800 additional housing units in the neighborhood, to a maximum of 1,600 dwelling units, with a 20% affordability requirement. He also seeks to cap any proposed structures in a new EIR to a height of 12 stories instead of the 16 storied buildings currently proposed.
For reference, the Palomar Hotel is seven stories, or about 90 feet high, which was the maximum height recommended by the Planning Commission for the downtown expansion, according to the City Council agenda report from June.
“What the city is evaluating right now is not ever going to happen,” said Keeley. “It is foolhardy to spend any more time or money on it as I see it.”
Reducing the proposed buildings from roughly 175 feet to about 130 feet is a spoonful of sugar that Schendledecker believes doesn’t fully address the concerns of city residents.
“There’s no fundamental change to the plan,” she said. “The height of the buildings sets people off, but it’s not the fundamental issue. To me, the issues are, how was the community consulted? Who is the development for? And does it fulfill our affordable housing needs? I would say no.”
Schendledecker points out that impacts from climate change could be substantial in the area south of Laurel Street, which is in a tsunami hazard area and the San Lorenzo River floodplain.
“That neighborhood is projected to be flooded if there are storm surges or sea level rise due to climate change,” said Schendledecker. “I don’t know why the Warriors would want to build a stadium in a flood plain.”
Alongside fulfilling state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation quotas and generating tax revenue for the city, a driving force of the expansion plan is the construction of a permanent home for the Santa Cruz Warriors. Keeley said that without the arena in the equation, the city would have to go back to the drawing board in terms of redeveloping the existing neighborhood.
“The way I look at it is that the Warriors arena is what has triggered the south of Laurel effort,” said Keeley. “I believe the city would still do that if the Warriors left town, but the terms and conditions under which 1,600 units and 320 affordable units would be built starts all over again.”
Schendledecker said that despite her opposition to the expansion plan, she is not anti-growth, but wants redevelopment efforts to be more considerate of the neighborhood’s current businesses and residents and the environmental concerns related to climate change.
“I think the city needs to start over,” said Schendledecker. “If they don’t, they will just continue to get pushback and it’s going to be expensive. I am not saying that’s what I want to happen, but I think that’s the reality.”
To see the details of the downtown plan expansion project’s EIR, visit cityofsantacruz.com.
Santa Cruz voters will choose a city council member to represent District 3 in the March 5, 2024 election. The district includes parts of the Upper and Lower Westside.
Joy Schendledecker is one of two candidates running for the District 3 seat.
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