Op-ed in the SC Sentinel, 5/15/2022
Housing advocate, political wit and former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane is a man of many talents, but I didn’t know he was also a surrealist poet and classicist until I read his latest attack on the Our Downtown Our Future initiative, which may soon be officially qualified for the November ballot. ODOF is the advocacy group of those whose voices were largely ignored during the city’s elaborate machinations to gain approval of its plan to move the Church Street library out of Civic Center and build a new library as part of a parking-housing “mixed-use” complex on Lot 4, replacing 10 heritage trees with a block-long building, part of which could be eight stories tall.
Speaking for “a newly formed citizens’ group calling itself Santa Cruz for Real Solutions” — as if ex-mayor Cynthia Mathews-led Downtown Forward weren’t connected and powerful and well-funded enough — Lane is quoted in the May 4 Sentinel saying, “ODOF’s ballot measure is a Trojan Horse loaded with smoke and mirrors” that “will eliminate badly needed affordable housing” and is “a cynical attempt to undercut the public process” by which then city manager Martín Bernal and veteran City Councilwoman Mathews applied 100% of their political leverage to proceed with their plan despite whatever opposition. Their success was a foregone conclusion (speaking of undercutting the public process). Lane’s invocation of smoke and mirrors is an apt description of the city’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t strategy — also known as baitand- switch — for using 2016’s Measure S money to abandon and demolish rather than renovate the library. From a poetic standpoint I was intrigued not only by the smoke and mirrors but that they were inside a Trojan Horse, which if I remember my Homer correctly was a giant, stunningly impressive structure delivered as a gift to Troy, which deceptively contained Greek soldiers who, once in downtown Troy, as it were, proceeded to destroy the city-state. I wouldn’t have reached into the classical lexicon to describe it, but the library- housing-garage complex could indeed be seen as a Trojan Horse, a gift sent by the Mathews-Lane coalition to slaughter the trees on Lot 4 and occupy the last open space downtown that could one day be a public plaza.
As for affordable housing, ODOF explicitly proposes to build even more than the 125 units of the mixeduse complex on Lot 7, where the mixed-users plan to move the farmers market. Lot 7 is about the same size as Lot 4, and with no library taking up part of its footprint, a much larger housing — and parking — project could be built there, leaving both the farmers market and a renovated library where they are. In this column I have asked repeatedly why affordable housing can’t be built on Lot 7 as easily as on Lot 4, but this mystery has yet to be explained by any of our city leaders.
What has been clear from the outset, and this is why the “public process” has been a joke, is that the city never considered any other plan than its mixed-use Lot 4 library-garage until public blowback made them shrink the garage and add several stories of affordable housing — because anyone objecting to that could be dismissed as an anti-housing anti-library NIMBY obstructionist — never mind that such so-called obstructionists are calling for more affordable housing on a more appropriate site just a couple of blocks away, leaving Lot 4 and its trees and open space as is, for now, until popular demand can help convert it to a town commons.
You can be certain that in the months between now and November the big guns and big bucks of Downtown Forward and SCFRS will mount a scorched-earth assault on ODOF and its initiative. As your literary critic I will be keeping an eye on their smoke and mirrors, their Trojan Horses and whatever other mixed-use metaphors they may deploy in the effort to shape — or crush — public opinion.
Beware of former mayors bearing gifts.
Stephen Kessler’s column appears on Saturdays.