This is a long letter (but you might have time to read it instead of watching another episode of...)
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
A brief intro to something not brief...
I made some comments to the Good Times for an article about the proposal for the new downtown library/housing/parking building on Cedar Street. There is a well-known Sentinel columnist who positively despises this project and writes about it quite frequently. After he saw my comments in the Good Times, he wrote me a message challenging one part of my comments, posing some questions and generally challenging my support for the project.
Below, I will go through some of the questions you raised in specific terms… but I want to mention up front that I have addressed my views on many of your concerns and questions in a couple of existing blog posts… including one that was pretty much a direct response to one of your 2020 Sentinel columns. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t buy a lot of your arguments and have been surprised that you would even make them because I have assumed you had looked into some of the issues with greater depth. I believe opinion columnists seem to do their best work when their commentaries are grounded in solid information. Sorry for the pointed criticism—but this is how I see it.
So, even recognizing that this is probably insulting to you as a very intelligent person, I am going say bluntly that you are misinformed on several points you have made over the past years in relation to this project. Here we go:
“Don, do you really believe that unlimited building of giant apartment complexes everywhere is going to solve the housing problem in Santa Cruz? “
Every apartment we (as a community) build or permit to be built, whether in a multi-story building or in a backyard, provides a home for humans in our community. If we build one unit in a backyard. One or two people get a place to live. If we build 100 apartments in a single building, a couple of hundred people get a place to live. So, while unlimited building of giant apartment complexes everywhere will not be wise or successful, building 1000 affordable apartments in three to six story buildings will have a profound effect on the lives of the people who will move into their apartments. And when 2000 to 3000 more lower income people have decent affordable homes, this will make a big dent in our housing problem… and play a part in reducing homelessness - especially in the context of activity in every community throughout the state meeting new requirements to create affordable places for people to live.
Consider the Palomar Hotel… this is a 7-story apartment building (apartments now - not originally) and it is providing low-cost housing for about 100 people.
“Is there enough water in the river and the reservoir to support thousands of new residents?”
First, read this. It provides a part of the answer. Long story short… growth has NOT led to increase water use or water demand. Let me try to be more specific about your likely concern. If we added 1000 new affordable apartments and their water demand to our system, it would mean that people like you and me would -- during a drought period – need to reduce our allocation by about 1 percent. (if my daily allocation under restrictions now is 50 gallons per day it would become about 49½.) This amount of reduction might matter to a few people but the vast majority of us would not notice the difference. In sum, the amount of conserving we must do is almost completely based on climate and drought and lack of supply – it has very little to do with a modest increase in people and homes for those people. Another way to think about the same thing: using this framework, if we had no new housing at all, we would still be limited to 50 gallons per day when we have a drought.
Of course, this might be counter-intuitive for some folks… we see population growth and we see a water shortage. We conclude that one is the cause of the other. But, as you know, correlation is not the same thing as causation. It’s up to thoughtful commentators (you and me?) to point this kind of thing out and move beyond oversimplified misconceptions.
“What happens when what is technically "affordable" or "very low income" as percentage of average costs proves unaffordable for the people it's supposed to benefit?”
This makes me think that you haven’t had a chance to look into how deed-restricted affordable housing works. These legally binding requirements mean that the tenant pays no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. This means the rent stays affordable regardless of cost and income changes over time. If someone’s income drops to, for instance, $500 per month, then they just pay $150 in rent—so it really is affordable and remains affordable. This is the kind of housing that will be in the Library project… and in Pacific Station North and Pacific Station South.
“And do you buy into the Trumpian lie that people who are against the Taj Garage Apartments are "against affordable housing"? This kind of distortion of the opposition's position is just as bad as the completely dishonest, manipulated, reverse-engineered process of gaining "approval" (Chomsky would call it "manufacturing consent") for the "we need the parking" garage/library and obliteration of the last open space downtown.”
Wow… this one is pretty hard to take as a “fair question” because it is so loaded. But I will start with the easy part: I don’t think you are against affordable housing…and I don’t think your colleagues in the anti-garage “movement” are generally against affordable housing. What I believe is that many of you don’t think it’s such a priority that you’re willing to flex FOR it around some of your other concerns. I have to ask: Why is it Trumpian in your mind to mislabel you and your colleagues as against affordable housing but not Trumpian to call the current project the “Taj Garage” and call people “dishonest” who have a different view than you and speak of building a structure on a paved parking lot as “obliteration of the last open space”. (On this last one: there are other open parking lots around downtown including lot 7 that are still open – and it really is hyperbole to refer to a paved parking lot as “open space” when that language is more appropriately used for places like Pogonip and Arana Gulch and even the San Lorenzo River corridor –which happens to be DOWNTOWN.)
“Do we really want a treeless wall-to-wall concrete cityscape? “
No. The fact that this is how you view what is going on sheds a lot of light on your stance on these issues. And yet, there is a difference between cutting down a handful of trees in the middle of a parking lot and creating a treeless cityscape. Seems to me that there are lots of trees throughout downtown on public streets and I have not seen any move to take those out. And when new things are built, there is new landscaping and new trees are planted. (By the way…all of our parking lots seem to have some trees in their midst. Is it okay to remove those trees on those other lots to build affordable housing… as long as it’s not the particular paved parking lot you want to save?)
“How is that environmentally ‘green’?“
Urban infill is exactly what environmentally responsible development calls for. No development of greenbelts. More people living close to where they work. Smaller dwelling units that consume smaller amounts of natural resources, including water.
“It is very disappointing to see someone of your intelligence and integrity buy into the idea that the only place to put housing is on top of the moved library (which nobody voted for in Measure S) when there are other downtown lots where "affordable housing" could go. No one has explained why such housing and the library need to be combined. Nor why suddenly parking that we supposedly needed so badly can be so easily displaced by hundreds of apartments.”
Thank you for your kind assessment of me. However, you got this statement wrong in terms of my views. I think it’s clear from my work that this isn’t the “only” place. My support for this project is based on many things. Of course, the affordable homes within the project are central. The fact that the project has changed to prioritize housing over extra parking makes it better. (I’m not sure why this bothers you.) The fact that including a solid amount of parking facilitates the consolidation of parking for four different affordable housing projects within a block of this of each other (Pacific Station North, Pacific Station South, the affordable project proposed for the Red Church-owned big parking lot across the street, and the library mixed use building at the heart of this discourse). Sharing the costs of construction among three uses and three funding sources is also a plus… it is not a “need” that the library and housing be combined. It’s just a smart, efficient, green, community-serving thing we can choose to do.
And…I can’t let the measure S comment go by… this is one of the choice deceptions that many folks on your side of the issue seem to like to use. (I won’t stoop so low as to call it a Trumpian “big lie” – it is just a small bit of falsification.) Here is a piece of the language we all voted on: “To modernize, upgrade and repair local libraries in Santa Cruz, Aptos, Live Oaks, Scotts Valley, Boulder Creek, Capitola, Felton and La Selva Beach -- replace failing roofs, outdated bathrooms, electrical systems/structurally damaged facilities; support growing use by children, seniors, veterans and others; expand access to modern technology; and construct/ expand facilities where necessary.” And this was in the ballot pamphlet as a further description of what Measure S would finance: “The Facilities shall also include, without limitation, the attributable costs of engineering, design, planning, materials testing, coordination, construction staking, and construction.” Now I realize this language does not require a new building… but it clearly does not preclude it. You seem to imply that it does—but perhaps I’m missing that precluding language. Now, given this (above) is what that measure actually says, I will boldly assert: THIS IS, IN FACT, WHAT YOU VOTED FOR when you voted yes on S. You might think you didn’t do that—but you did. It’s not my fault nor the fault of Martin Bernal or Cynthia Mathews that you missed this in your ballot reading.
What makes this Measure S argument seem all the more disingenuous is the complete silence on the fact that Capitola just built a completely new library with these same Measure S funds. If it is an abomination in downtown Santa Cruz why is it a non-issue in Capitola. These are also your tax dollars being spent on a new library building. This is “case-making” at its worst. Form the opinion first and then “stretch” the facts to support your opinion. Great advocacy tool – and a poor way to formulate public policy.
“The whole corrupt process of this horrible garage-library fiasco has been a sham and a shame on the city, and I'm truly surprised that you are so desperate for "affordable housing" that you have drunk the Cynthia Mathews Martin Bernal kool-aid. Or perhaps I am just naive about how this city operates, public opinion be damned.”
This is one that tempts me to say: I’m not going to dignify that with a response. It really is low on so many levels. First… you trash Martin and Cynthia mainly because they have strongly advocated for this project. And then you say (quoting from your concluding paragraph to me) everyone “sincerely wants what is best for the city and the community.” So which is it? Is Cynthia an evil conspirator or is she someone who has spent her entire public life working for community betterment in general and great libraries in particular? Was Martin a brewer of bad “kool-aid” policy or was he trying to use public funds efficiently to accomplish several positive community goals in one project? Frankly, your commentary about them is beneath you and you might want to knock it off now. (Dare I mention “Trumpian” again?)
Beyond this, your view about “public opinion” being ignored rings hollow when so many good people all over the community support the currently approved approach to the library and housing and parking. Just because you and the people that enjoy your monthly screeds in the Sentinel reflect this view does not make it reality. There have been dozens of open public meetings over the past few years that have advanced this project and just because a good number of people have objected doesn’t mean the community is being ignored. This is a community of many loudly expressed viewpoints—but the loudest and most organized are not always the majority.
And… I am not “desperate for affordable housing.” I’m a very fortunate and privileged guy and I am comfortably housed. However, there are hundreds of people in our community that are desperate for affordable housing. I invite you to consider their desperation rather than mine.
“How many homeless people (like what percentage of total renters) do you think will be housed in all the new "affordable" developments proposed for downtown? Will they be subsidized by some homeless renters’ fund? No matter how many that turns out to be, will it significantly reduce the local homeless population?”
Glad to turn to a more constructive area of discussion. The exact numbers are hard to know ahead of time because some of the affordable apartments coming to downtown will be specifically designated as “permanent supportive housing” and these will all become homes for people who have been homeless. But, beyond this, scores (if not hundreds) of unhoused people have a housing subsidy voucher from public funding sources (mainly the Housing Authority). They will all have a shot at being housed in new downtown apartments along with other lower-income folks that might not be homeless. Though not downtown, two other affordable projects within walking distance of downtown are “in the pipeline” and are likely to come to fruition over the next couple of years. I’m willing to estimate that somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 to 200 homeless families or individuals will be housed through these projects. This feels to me like a very meaningful number of people moving from unhoused to housed.
“No obligation or expectation here, but if you take time to engage in this conversation, thank you. I'm sincerely interested in understanding your reasoning, and what the tradeoffs are between unlimited building and quality of life. And what will be affordable to whom by the time any of these developments are habitable.”
I think I’ve already addressed some of this above… but I will comment here that no matter what else might happen, there will remain plenty of limits on what can and will be built in Santa Cruz in the foreseeable future. Despite the state’s loosening of many local restrictions, many limitations remain (as they should). Zoning will be modified but not eliminated. The small number of buildable sites will always be a limiting factor. The greenbelt will be quite limiting. The cost of building a housing project is very high and financing for projects is still limited and difficult to obtain. So… unlimited building will not be happening. What is actually in play is simply more building than you and many of us are used to. And.. I can’t help but wonder whose quality of life you are thinking about when you mention “quality of life.” Additional affordable apartments will improve the quality of life for a lot of poorer people and unhoused people and people who have some money but can’t find a vacant apartment to rent here so they commute for an hour to work here.
“And for the record, the "shame" I spoke of is on the city, not you, for the devious process by which they have foisted the Taj Garage Apartments on the local population, which never asked for such a thing in their approval of library renovation. (Do you feel ashamed for supporting it? Why would you think I was trying to "shame" you?)”
My only comment here is that every person is well-served by reflecting on whether things they have done were shameful. Some claim the city has been devious and acted shamefully. Others feel that opponents have seized this ground much more definitively for themselves. (See above.) In politics, lots of folks— not just Trumpsters - have the capacity to be devious and act shamefully. Neither of us should be afraid to look in the mirror.
“I think it's fair to say that everyone engaged in this debate sincerely wants what is best for the city and the community.”
I imagine this last comment was intended to de-escalate your somewhat pointed/loaded set of questions and assertions on your part. I appreciate your wanting to do that. Unfortunately, I’m choosing not to take you cue to de-escalate. Instead, I’ll say that lots of people participate in these debates and political battles because they want their side to win. They see demons and bad intentions everywhere. “Corrupt” public officials. “Devious” methods. Moneyed interests controlling everything. Sometimes these factors do come into play. And sometimes not. But once the lines are drawn, there is always at least one team in this community that relies on seeing and pointing to the bad guys and the bad deeds – even when they don’t really come into play.
Lastly, I want to reinforce my own bottom line on this. Creating obstacles to affordable housing and higher density rental housing has been baked into Santa Cruz politics and local politics in hundreds of communities around California for decades. The historical roots of this are pretty horrible - racism and fear of poorer people are among the among the fattest roots. More recently, the focus of these efforts has been more mundane: traffic, taller buildings nearby, etc. Nothing to be ashamed of. However, the exclusion that was born in the earlier times has continued even as the reasons have changed. I won’t be calling anyone who opposes taller buildings or more density a racist when they are doing it because they truly worry about traffic or loss of sunlight. However, I will suggest that they may not be paying enough attention to how their stance perpetuates exclusion and creates a lot of other problems such as homelessness, housing insecurity and overuse of the automobile (because poorer people will have to live further from their jobs.) This is why I push so hard for affordable housing - and challenge people who have progressive values and believe in social justice to reconsider if their comfort and the comfort of homeowners should continue to be such a high priority. Equity and justice strike me as better priorities right now. That’s the choice I’ve made. Perhaps you are moving toward making that choice, too?
Thanks for the engagement and the inspiration to write.