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Santa Cruz plans high-rise living as a fix for sky-high housing costs -- and meets opposition

James Rainey, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

You can sense it in the ubiquitous "Help Wanted" posters in artsy shops and restaurants, in the ranks of university students living out of their cars and in the outsize percentage of locals camping on the streets.

This seaside county known for its windswept beauty and easy living is in the midst of one of the most serious housing crises anywhere in home-starved California. Santa Cruz County, home to a beloved surf break and a bohemian University of California campus, also claims the state's highest rate of homelessness and, by one measure based on local incomes, its least affordable housing.

Leaders in the city of Santa Cruz have responded to this hardship in a land of plenty — and to new state laws demanding construction of more affordable housing — with a plan to build up rather than out.

A downtown long centered on quaint sycamore-lined Pacific Avenue has boomed with new construction in recent years. Shining glass and metal apartment complexes sprout in multiple locations, across a streetscape once dominated by 20th century classics like the Art Deco-inspired Palomar Inn apartments.

And the City Council and planning department envision building even bigger and higher, with high-rise apartments of up to 12 stories in the southern section of downtown that comes closest to the city's boardwalk and the landmark wooden roller coaster known as the Giant Dipper.

"It's on everybody's lips now, this talk about our housing challenge," said Don Lane, a former mayor and an activist for homeless people. "The old resistance to development is breaking down, at least among a lot of people."


Said current Mayor Fred Keeley, a former state assemblyman: "It's not a question of 'no growth' anymore. It's a question of where are you going to do this. You can spread it all over the city, or you can make the urban core more dense."

But not everyone in famously tolerant Santa Cruz is going along. The high-rise push has spawned a backlash, exposing sharp divisions over growth and underscoring the complexities, even in a city known for its progressive politics, of trying to keep desirable communities affordable for the teachers, waiters, firefighters and store clerks who provide the bulk of services.

A group originally called Stop the Skyscrapers — now Housing for People — protests that a proposed city "housing element" needlessly clears the way for more apartments than state housing officials demand, while providing too few truly affordable units.

City officials say the plan they hope to finalize in the coming weeks, with its greater height limits, only creates a path for new construction. The intentions of individual property owners and the vicissitudes of the market will continue to make it challenging to build the 3,736 additional units the state has mandated for the city.


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