Every other Tuesday, Santa Cruz’s elected officials gather on a Zoom call to discuss the city’s legislative future. In a new series from City on a Hill Press, we will give you the rundown of what happens at virtual City Hall.  

In this week’s meeting, the Santa Cruz City Council discussed the METRO, affordable housing, downtown development, and heard updates from the city manager. 

METRO State of the Union

Santa Cruz Metro Transit District (METRO) CEO Alex Clifford delivered the annual METRO State of the Union. After stay-at-home orders went into effect, weekly METRO ridership in 2020 dropped 70 to 95 percent compared with 2019. METRO’s goals in the coming year are analyzing what post-COVID transit would look like and how to bring riders back. 

METRO is following health guidelines from the American Public Transit Association by disinfecting frequently and requiring face coverings. Buses now have hand sanitizer dispensers and plastic barriers between rows and beside the driver.  

To increase public interest, the METRO Board is considering adding Wi-Fi to some busses and creating a mobile app riders can use to track the number of passengers on any given bus. 

Clifford also said METRO is hoping to migrate from cash fares to smart cards that get tapped on the farebox. 

METRO received $13.5 million in stimulus funds through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, in addition to $20 million through the CARES Act in 2020.

“That’s really going to help us try to avoid furloughs and layoffs and try to keep as much of that service out there,” Clifford said in the meeting. “Congress said when they put these two bills together they really want us to try hard to keep our bus operators employed. So we’re trying to take that to heart, and we’re doing our best.” 

Library Mixed Use Project

Architectural firm Griffin Structures and the city’s Economic Development Office gave a presentation on the status of a combined library and affordable housing development that will sit behind the University Town Center. 

The project features ground floor library access along the busy thoroughfares of Lincoln, Cedar, and Cathcart and includes at least 50 affordable housing units. The project is set to break ground in early 2023 and be completed in late 2024. 

The Economic Development Office delivered a brief summary of the public recommendations it received on how to repurpose the downtown Santa Cruz Public Library building. Amanda Rotella, city project manager for the library mixed-use development, said the office received four proposals since late last year, with a final selection to come Feb. 21. 

The city hired Griffin Structures in October to serve as its owner’s representative. Owner’s representatives act as the liaison between clients and the private entities they contract, including architects and general contractors. 

City Manager’s Report: North County Evacuation Efforts, County Moves to Purple Tier, Houseless Encampments Update, Eviction Moratorium Extended

In his regular report to the Council, City Manager Martín Bernal said he does not anticipate this week’s storm will directly affect the city of Santa Cruz, despite its impacts on northern Santa Cruz County. However, Bernal said the city is prepared to assist its residents if conditions change. 

With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s removal of the statewide shelter-in-place order, Santa Cruz County will return to the statewide colored tier model. The county is in the purple tier, which allows restaurants to reopen outdoor dining. Hair salons, spas, and barber shops will reopen with limited capacity. Bars are closed, but can open if they serve food, and fitness clubs can reopen for outdoor activity. Indoor gatherings continue to be restricted.

Bernal reported COVID-19 cases are down 48 percent since his last report two weeks ago, and ICU capacity is increasing. However, vaccine distribution is facing supply shortages. Residents can find updated vaccine information from VaccinateCa and the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency

Bernal deferred to Director of Planning and Community Development Lee Butler to give updates on the encampment at the intersection of Highway One and River Street. Butler said the city has teams on the ground encouraging people to move out of areas that could flood, but believe everyone along the San Lorenzo River is out of harm’s way. 

Butler said the city is set to begin the project to widen the intersection in early spring. However, this will require encampments to move, presenting the city with a major issue.   

“The biggest challenge we have right now is we really don’t have a place to send folks,” Butler said. “We don’t have a definitive place where we can say, ‘here is where you can go after you leave this location.’”

Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb said the moratorium on evictions, set to expire on Jan. 31, was extended through June 30 for residential tenants. The city also has a moratorium on commercial evictions through Mar. 31. Additional housing information is available on the city’s website

Brown Pulls Emergency Declaration Item From Consent Agenda

Council Member Sandy Brown pulled item 10 of the Jan. 26 consent agenda, which sought to extend the city’s COVID-19 emergency declaration order by an additional 60 days, opening the item for further discussion. The order granted additional powers to the city manager’s office, which Brown said City Manager Bernal has abused.

“I have become so concerned about the process for the actions that were taken at the San Lorenzo Park and the fallout from that,” Brown said, in reference to the attempted evictions of houseless encampments at the park. “The decision ran counter to public health best practices.”

The item passed, 6-1, with Brown casting the sole dissenting vote. Council members worried that if the emergency declaration ended, the city would become ineligible for state and federal relief funds.

Rezoning of Metro Center, NIAC Building Parcels

The Council voted unanimously to approve the rezoning and redrawing of five city- and METRO-owned parcels including the Santa Cruz Metro Center, its adjoining parking lot, and the historic NIAC building, which currently houses offices for the Santa Cruz Finance and Water Departments. 

The plan consolidated the previous five parcels to three and changed the zoning designation of a new city-owned parcel to allow for business and residential development. 

The previous parcel boundaries of the Santa Cruz Metro Center, parking lot, and NIAC building. Image courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz.
The new parcel boundaries of the Santa Cruz Metro Center, parking lot, and NIAC building. The city would gain ownership of Parcel A, while the METRO would gain ownership of parcels B and 4. Image courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz.

This rezoning gives the city the option to build proposed affordable housing units on the parcel facing Pacific Avenue. This comes as part of a larger city plan to expand the number of market rate and below market rate housing units downtown.

Affordable, Supportive Housing Projects Get Increased Number of Units

City Council unanimously approved an increase of 25 units in the supportive housing project on Cedar Street, for a projected total of 100 units. This is one of two new supportive housing projects, with another project of up to 120 units being built on Pacific Avenue. 

The two projects have been created under Assembly Bill 2162, which simplifies and promotes the production of affordable and supportive housing.