By Jane Weed-Pomerantz
As a former Santa Cruz City Councilmember and mayor, I was perplexed to read a quote from a local developer that “development as a social equity policy is becoming a political force.” Perhaps a political force for the developers, who are “supersizing Santa Cruz,” thanks to the state’s density bonus law and the very real possibility of upzoning south of Laurel. To me, this does not sound environmentally sustainable (limited water supply and increased traffic congestion) nor socially equitable. Let’s take a closer look at how applying both these land use principles will challenge and change Santa Cruz forever.
The City Council has approved several very large mixed-use projects downtown, some already under construction, others in various stages of planning. The most significant in terms of height, size, density will overwhelm Pacific, Front and parts of Laurel. One approved 81-foot building will be along the San Lorenzo River. Two others in the initial stages of planning will add similar sized projects along the river, basically walling it off. One of these, a controversial six-story luxury hotel development with 228 rooms, is also moving ahead.
The justification for such massive projects is that they will provide much needed affordable housing. But not one of these projects reaches the previous 15%, now 20%, locally required affordability (please note: proposed Metro project is the exception). Instead, thanks to the state’s density bonus law, our community will have fewer affordable units with taller buildings, larger footprints and greater density and unmitigated adverse impacts.
The City has initiated a process to extend the downtown boundaries to south of Laurel – all the way to Depot Park. Upzoning will increase its allowable height. But the state density bonus law will also allow developers to add even more height and density. Substantially more. One city planner working on upzoning acknowledged that these potential structures could be a 100 feet or more (over 10 stories) – with no legal basis to challenge. Yes, we will be getting more affordable units but at what cost to the community?
The argument for upzoning is that it increases affordability and equity, but does it? Recent studies have found that upzoning decreases affordability, increases average rents and actually (in Santa Cruz) reduces the number of affordable units. A 2020 study found that upzoning increases gentrification by unleashing “market forces that serve high income earners, therefore reinforcing the effects of income inequality rather than tempering them.” (stopbtownupzoning.org.) “Increasing density may help ease the housing shortage” (we are facing) but “without including measures to reduce segregation, increase equity, and lift up disadvantaged communities it is likely to replicate existing disparities (we already face).” (shareable.net/cities-at-turning-point-will -upzoning-ease-housing-inequalities-or-build-on-zonings-raciest-legacy/)
So then, who does benefit from upzoning? Upzoning provides developers opportunities to reap higher rents and increase their property values. As Michael Storper, professor of urban planning at UCLA recently pointed out “what upzoning did not do (in Chicago) and “not likely to do anywhere, is create incentives for housing construction in the areas where middle-class and lower-income people most need it as the prices for which they need it.” (“The Great Housing Debate: A Profusion of Panaceas” Governing.com 4/02/2021)
And then what about our water resources? Does more development put us on a course of sustainability as we face climate change? According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Santa Cruz is “100% in extreme drought” and “water is inadequate … for urban needs.” So does this justify adding close to 2,000 units in the City of Santa Cruz? This doesn’t even include UCSC preparing a long-range development plan to serve 28,000 students. We should consider only those projects “that meet the needs for the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (UNESCO.org Sustainable Development)
I urge our involvement! Begin by sending your concerns and comments about environmental sustainability and social equity to the City Santa Cruz Climate Action Plan 2030 by July 26 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jane Weed-Pomerantz is a former Santa Cruz City Councilmember and mayor.