Truthiness and Consequences.
Updated: Sep 23
“The No-nonsense Approach to Nonsense “
Here's a question. If you think someone you’re arguing or debating with is offering up nonsensical assertions, is it okay to say you think what they’re saying is nonsense? Is it okay to refer to the assertions as nonsense…as long as you don’t question your adversary’s personal integrity…and you lay out exactly why the things they are saying are nonsensical?
I’ve decided that, for me, it is okay to call nonsense by its name as long I’m not mean to anyone or questioning personal integrity.
One other opening observation: Many of the things said by supporters of Santa Cruz's Measure O utilize something called “truthiness.” They utilize truthiness to obscure much of the less than correct information or unsubstantiated arguments they share. In case the term isn’t familiar: “truthiness is the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” (The term was coined by the eminent philosopher and social critic Stephen Colbert.)
I’m about to go through this in real detail, one assertion at a time. This is going to go long because there is a lot of nonsense and truthiness to sort through. I want to be clear that each of the nonsensical assertions I’m going to dissect has been made by supporters of Measure O and/or critics of the Library and Affordable Housing Project. These statements are NOT likely in many cases to be the official statements of the Yes on O campaign. Instead, these are statements I’ve heard or my colleagues on the No on O campaign have directly heard -- or they are assertions we have seen printed in conventional and social media by project critics. I also want to be clear that I believe the great majority of folks behind Measure O have good intentions and seriously care for the planet and the community. Many just aren't doing good work when it comes to Measure O.
Let’s start with the most recent nonsense coming from many supporters of Measure O; it goes something like this: The parking spaces in the project are for a luxury hotel. It’s “truthy” because there is a hotel in the planning pipeline for Front and Laurel, in the downtown area. But it’s nonsense because the Library Housing Project has been in the planning pipeline for about 5 years, while the hotel project idea has only been around for a couple of years. So their version of things is akin to a cart pulling a horse. It gets even more nonsensical when we consider the fact that the original library building plan was much more heavily weighted toward parking several years ago with more than 500 parking spaces. At the same time that the hotel project emerged as a possibility, the parking in the project has been reduced to around 300 spaces. If the parking was for the hotel, it would have been recently increased in the library project. And now we’ve learned that the hotel project includes plenty of its own parking (about 200 spaces on its own site) and doesn’t need public parking at all. The takeaway: it’s a good tactic to try to worry locals about the library project helping a large hotel, even if it’s grounded in…well… nothing.
The Farmers's Market
When the team that created the initiative (now called Measure O) started gathering signatures, a whole bunch of folks heard a pitch about the initiative “saving” the Farmers’ Market. This one is truthy because the new Library and Housing project will be built on the current site of the Wednesday Farmers’ Market. Still, this pitch was nonsense because the Farmers’ Market does not need Measure O in order to be “saved.” The Market is thriving and is in active discussions with the City of Santa Cruz for a permanent site. And the City has set aside $2 million to create a better facility and infrastructure for the Market. The Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market has specifically said that the Market has no connection to Measure O and has not taken a position in support of the measure. The takeaway: it’s a clever tactic when gathering signatures at the Farmers’ Market to suggest that signing the petition will save the market -- even if the measure is not needed to save the market.
A common refrain on the Library and Affordable Housing project is that it’s somehow driven by developers that will make a lot of money on the project. This one sounds truthy because we do know that some developers and property owners make good money on a successful development. Nonetheless, this claim is more nonsense. How do we know? Let’s start with the library. One of the main elements of the project is a public library. It’s being developed by the City of Santa Cruz. Cities don’t make money from libraries. Then there’s the 124 low-income, publicly-subsidized apartments. Does anyone think rent-restricted low-income housing is a big money maker—especially when a nonprofit affordable housing development organization is involved? Then there’s the public parking element. It will be owned by the city and the city is not a profit-making enterprise. The takeaway: A time-tested tactic around here is to raise concerns that developers are making off like bandits. Why not try it even it’s not relevant or correct?
If you’ve followed the discourse at all on Measure O and the project, you have definitely heard that Measure O is going to save the trees. This is not just truthy—there’s some real truth in this one. Their plan will save a handful of their favorite trees. What makes this claim nonsensical is that they fail to mention that their plan targets many other trees for removal. The targeted trees live on the other downtown parking lots they promote for development in their ballot measure. The takeaway: in a very environmentally-conscious town, saving trees makes a great talking point even if one’s commitment to trees is very selective.
Affordable Housing (twice!)
The Yes on O team has gone to great lengths to try to show that their plan is the best one for creating affordable housing downtown. They’ve created a sense of truthiness on this topic by showing boxes on a map where they imagine affordable housing will be built. They add to this truthiness by creating images and models of their imagined housing and displaying these to the community. People who are familiar with my background in affordable housing issues know that I have particular frustration with people spouting nonsense about affordable housing. I will be especially pointed in my comments about the bundle of nonsense on this.
I think we can all agree that images of a wished-for apartment building do not create affordable housing. It takes years of planning, selecting a project team, designing, government processing, community involvement and advocacy, multiple successful grant applications, financing arrangements, and at least a year or two more of actual construction. The affordable housing project that Measure O blocks is about halfway through these steps. The plans for the current project have gotten quite specific and we know a lot of details of what the project will include—most importantly, we know it will contain 124 apartments legally required to be affordable to lower income households. It is nonsense for the Yes on O folks to claim they have a better approach to affordable housing simply because they have an imagined project -- as they toss aside years of work toward a real and substantial apartment complex. The takeaway: In a community where so many of us are crying out for action on affordable housing, the Yes on O campaign knows it’s essential to try to frame itself as a champion of affordable housing. And, since the measure actually blocks the largest downtown affordable housing project so far, their team had to dream up some nice images to blunt the impact of the huge political problem they created for themselves in obstructing this affordable housing.
But there’s even more nonsense on housing! Measure O includes a map of sites that the authors imagine are all potential affordable housing sites. Maps always seem truthy. But a close look at the maps and the sites shown on those maps and we quickly see that most are very small. Too small for a feasible affordable housing project (not just my opinion... the independent analysis done by the affordable housing finance experts at Keyser Marston analysis looked very carefully at these sites and found most to be not feasible for an affordable housing project.). So they are really just blowing smoke on how much Measure O will do to meet our affordable housing needs. The takeaway: Blowing smoke is a time-tested technique when trying to make sure no one can see what's really going on.
One of the driving forces (bad pun!) behind the Yes on O effort was a very legitimate concern about the climate impact of cars and the impact parking structures have in encouraging car use. When the project was first envisioned for the Cedar Street site, it included only a new library and a large parking garage with something like 500 spaces. This original proposal set off alarm bells for many folks in the community. That much new parking did not seem to be needed. So the battle against the project began several years ago and Measure O was written in part to block a very large parking structure. The truthiness on this one is to for them to repeat something about "too much parking" since there once was a large amount of parking in the project. Where it all moves toward nonsense can be seen here: Over several years of community debate and discussion, the project changed a quite substantially (see more on this below) and major reductions in parking were realized. 600 spaces went down to 400 and then to about 300 spaces. Then their pitch goes further into "nonsenseland" here: In this same period, it has also been established that downtown has lost or is about to lose (to new buildings and parklets established in response to COVID) about 450 parking spaces. So we have a measure that will not block an increase in parking (as was the original intent). Instead, we have a Measure O that will make it nearly impossible to replace much of the parking that downtown is losing. For Yes on O to now claim they are fighting against a car-centric project with excess parking has become total nonsense. With or without Measure O, downtown Santa Cruz will see some reduction in parking. It’s worth adding here that one of the reasons the parking has been reduced and reduced again is the addition of more affordable apartments in the project. To put it bluntly, the Library and Affordable Housing project has become more focused on affordable housing at the expense of parking. So some of the nonsense here is the fact that parking warriors have already won and yet they keep fighting anyway. The takeaway: it’s difficult to let go of an old, reasonable argument for one’s position even when it is no longer valid. (Here's a fun fact, the current project design has more parking spaces for bikes than for cars. )
A recent assertion by the Yes on Measure O campaign is that the parking portion of the Library and Affordable Housing Project cannot be financed in the near future—and therefore the whole project will be delayed for years. Here’s the truthiness part: the City’s downtown parking fund has taken a hit during the pandemic. Downtown went quiet and parking revenue declined. Additional truthiness is added by showing a serious-looking graph to “prove” the parking fund is in bad shape. Where we start to see the nonsense is in the assumption that a group with no expertise in city government finance can correctly assess the City’s capacity to finance a project. Once we note that the City has an excellent bond rating (an independent rating of its capacity to finance city projects), new parking rates coming online to increase parking revenue, and a downtown that is getting much busier again, the nonsense is even more apparent. Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker, the professional our city hired to oversee the City’s finances, has said in no uncertain terms that the City has the capacity to finance the parking portion of the project. The takeaways: mistrust in City government is an easy target for the Yes on O campaign and questioning the numbers is easy for anyone to do. And using numbers and statistics looks good -- even authoritative—whether or not the selected numbers tell an accurate story. The real question is: would we trust: 1) a professional who has staked his career on city finance or 2) a handful of amateurs who know very little about city finances to paint an accurate picture?
Speaking of parking finance nonsense… some Yes on O supporters are doing everything they can to hint and imply and say circuitously that Measure S Library funds will be used to build a parking garage. It is absolutely not legal for Measure S funds to go to parking and the City is absolutely not using the funds for parking. Period. No truthiness here this time. Just a bald-faced fabrication. The takeaway: Why not give this whopper a try…it does sound quite alarming.
One of the anchors of the Measure O effort is the focus on climate and carbon impacts. They recite chapter and verse the impacts of car parking and tree removal and waste disposal and concrete construction. In this area, their truthiness is centered around telling half of the correct story. Much of what they do say in this regard is correct (though sometimes a bit exaggerated or guessed at.) It’s what they don’t say that leads them into “nonsense-land.” To put it another way, we have a case of people living in glass houses throwing stones. For starters, the Yes on O team wants to renovate the old library instead of building a new one. Here are some impacts of going that route: their approach requires demolition of significant portions of the old building and sending that material to the landfill. Their approach will still require the use of tons of new concrete. Renovating the old library also means continuing to use tons of carbon-based gas each year to heat the building. And there are cost-prohibitive obstacles to solarizing the electrical system in the renovation. To put it bluntly, the renovation project they favor is not very green. On the other hand, the new library would not use any carbon-based fuels, would be solar powered, would have a green roof, have more planted area, and would be built with a higher level of energy efficiency. Beyond the library building itself, it’s important to remember that Measure O proponents are proposing building on other parking lots. Those buildings will require removal of trees and the pouring of even more concrete. They are also creating barriers to consolidating parking downtown—which means they are inadvertently advocating for a very inefficient use of public parking lot land. (In other words, making it more likely that surface parking lots will be remain and not be available for better uses.) Of course, it is not nonsense to advocate for protecting the planet. However, it is nonsense to use those green arguments when they are chosen so selectively. Takeaway: Every effort in Santa Cruz must try to paint itself as green as possible. Both sides in this campaign are trying to do that. The difference is that the Yes on O team is avoiding the reality of the negative climate impacts of their own approach. The No on O campaign I’m part of is willing to acknowledge the positive and negative environmental impacts of both approaches. Another takeaway: never give an inch even when your case has been totally undermined.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the PROCESS for how we got here. One of the important story lines for backers of Measure O is that there was something fishy (sometimes even “corrupt”) going on when the City and the Library leadership went from an initial idea to the substantive project we have before us today. Their story line also includes a part about upstanding, erstwhile citizens protecting the community and the public interest from sinister forces. The truthiness in this story is the part about erstwhile citizens acting to protect something. Those citizens do want to protect some trees and the old library building -- and they are challenging the City and Library leadership. But, as usual, the main story is nonsense. As the Library Housing support team reminds the community over and over (and the public record confirms this), when this project was first conceived for parking and library many years ago, it was just that: a lot of parking and a new library. Then several public processes took place. In public meetings with many opportunities for public input, the project took on many new characteristics and changed dramatically. There were city council meetings. There were meetings of the all-volunteer Downtown Library Advisory Committee made up of community members devoted to getting us the best possible downtown library. (This committee deeply considered both renovation and a new building.) There was a special city council committee with two of the project’s skeptics making up a majority of that three-person committee. (This committee held many public meetings and gathered a tremendous amount of input from all corners of the community—and some of the leaders of the Yes on O team made presentations to this committee.) Then the committee’s recommendations were presented in a public meeting of the city council and there was public input and debate and voting. Then the project architect held public meetings and took a lot of public input on project design. Through all these processes and public sessions, all kinds of changes and improvements to the project were made: the amount of affordable housing in the project went from 0 to 50 to 100 to 124 over the last 3 years. The amount of parking spaces went from more than 500 down to 400 and then 300. The improved features in the new library design were both green and very community-friendly (more greenery, more natural light and more outdoor public space, for instance). Farmers’ Market people (and community members) asked for a guarantee of a continued and improved market site downtown, so the city made a major commitment of money to the Market. To say the community was ignored is nonsense -- pure and simple.
As if that bundle of “process” nonsense was not big enough, the Measure O supporters created even more. They started touting their work in creating and presenting Measure O as the genuine, legitimate community process. The truthiness factor here is that the initiative process does allow citizens to place a measure on the ballot. The nonsense is that the substantive policy of the initiative was written by a small group of self-selected individuals. They met in private. They held ZERO public meetings to ask for public comment on their draft proposal. And, unlike the multi-year process for the library project itself, we in the broader community didn’t have any opportunity to improve the Measure O proposal through public comment and suggestions. Measure O is now a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. For this process to be held out as superior is just nonsense. The takeaway: “the best defense is a good offense.” When one has this kind of weak spot, try to go after your opponent for doing something wrong on that same topic. Even though you’re actually the one in a truly weak position, you try to put your opponent on the defensive.
Truthiness side-bar related to the process: The opponents of the library project did mobilize more people to speak and write to the city council. From this, they developed their claim that the council “ignored” the community. However, it is pure nonsense to suggest that simply because more people spoke against an item on a meeting agenda that we know how the community feels. And it is similar level of nonsense to claim that the side that did not prevail was “ignored.” That side simply did not get the majority vote. In the largest sense, this is some of the most damaging nonsense of all: to claim that several very engaging, open and public processes are corrupt or dismissive of the public …JUST BECAUSE ONE SIDE DIDN’T GET EXACTLY ITS OWN WAY. That nonsensical thinking would lead to this conclusion: “Every process on a contentious issue is automatically corrupt because every one of these processes leads to one side not getting exactly what it wants.”
One last piece of Yes on O nonsense... unlike the other items above, this one is not about anything the Measure O team claimed. It's about something their ballot measure will do -- in terms of equity and social justice. Measure O will ensure that the lower income people moving into apartments downtown have to park about 3 or 4 blocks from their apartment if they have a car. One could say that this no parking approach is has some value to the residents of single-family homes who were the primary authors of this measure. They can claim that they are discouraging car use and that helps the environment. It is not nonsense to discourage car use. However, it is nonsense to only do that for low-income people in apartments downtown while almost all homeowners get to park in their driveways just steps from their front doors. (Yes, many lower income families really do need to have a car). Heaven forbid we allow those lower income families to have something close to the same conveniences more well-to-do homeowners have… maybe a parking spot within a block or two of home.
Final word: If any of the Measure O supporters make it to the end of this “dissertation” you know they will nitpick and cherry-pick… they will find a minor error or they’ll find a nuanced statement that they don’t like. And they will conclude that I haven’t been perfect in my presentation—and therefore that I should be dismissed. What they won’t be able to do is refute the basic facts I’ve laid out as to why it’s appropriate to call so many of their arguments NONSENSE.