Stephen Kessler writes columns for the Sentinel twice a week.

Here below are seven columns by Stephen Kessler, all of which are about the City's proposed project to build a new five (or six?)-level garage on Cedar Street, between Lincoln and Cathcart Streets in Downtown Santa Cruz. This project would include a new City Library on the first level of the garage. (For additional extensive discussion, click here.)
Kessler's most recent column (from June 17, 2020) is first.
All are published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Column published June 17, 2020
Column published June 13, 2020
Column published May 27, 2020
Column published January 4, 2020
Column published August 24, 2019
Column published July 20, 2019
Column published August 24, 2018
Cynthia Mathews’ art of the backdoor deal

As you know if you’ve been following the epic saga of the Taj Garage—the proposed mixed-use parking-library (and belatedly added “affordable housing”) complex on Lot 4 in downtown Santa Cruz—Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews, due to her conflict of interest as an owner of property adjacent to the site, is recused from voting on this item that will soon be before the council.

This hasn’t kept Mathews from launching, directing and sustaining an all-out lobbying campaign to build her project in the face of significant popular opposition. How she reconciles or rationalizes this ethical, if not legal, contradiction may be her personal business, but as the city’s most veteran and powerful elected official, pretty much anything and everything she does has public and political implications.

That’s why I’ve been watching with astonishment and dismay the gross corruption of the city’s decision-making process by her behind-the-scenes machinations. Awhile ago she founded a front organization called Downtown Forward which recruited an impressive assortment of “stakeholders” to publicly support the Taj Garage as the only way for the city to gain a “21st-century library,” which is the bait for public approval of an otherwise unsightly and unneeded garage.

As far as I know, Downtown Forward has done nothing but put up a very slick and expensive website since its unveiling at a “press conference” more than a year ago—a press conference at which no questions were taken and where Mathews, the group’s primary organizer, never took the microphone. She has been hard at work since then throwing her political weight around attempting to cajole a critical mass of local citizens and businesspeople to get with her program and vocally advocate for her mixed-use garage.

With the deadline approaching for the city council’s decision on this issue, the recused and conflicted councilwoman’s lobbying campaign has gone into overdrive as public opinion appears to be trending against her desired outcome. She recently sent an email to the executive director of the Downtown Association, a group of businesses distinct from the chamber of commerce, asking for what she calls in her subject line “A big favor.”

In her email, sent from her personal not her city council address, Mathews writes, “…we are facing an imminent decision point for the DT library/housing/parking project and we would really appreciate getting a letter from the DTA affirming its support…Justin [SC Mayor Justin Cummings] is the key.” Who exactly the plural “we” refers to is unclear. Is it the royal “we,” the council “we”—or should it have been more truthfully the singular Mathews “I”? The blatant if indirect attempt to manipulate the mayor’s vote is one of the creepiest things about this troubling message.

Regardless of where it was sent from, can anyone in this town think of Mathews as anything but its most shrewd and influential politician? Can any businessperson openly oppose her without wondering how it might affect future council decisions on other matters? If former council members Drew Glover and Chris Krohn could be recalled for openly offensive behavior, surely Mathews’ shameless and shadowy arm-twisting is a far more serious breach of public trust. The “favor” President Trump requested of the president of Ukraine was enough to get him impeached. No doubt Mathews would declare, as the president did, “no quid pro quo,” but appearances matter.

In her email to the DTA, Mathews goes on to offer talking points to its members for letters they should write to the council. Why she doesn’t just offer to compose the letters herself and have them sign under her words—a tactic she has been known to deploy in the past—you’ll have to ask her. But if this is not corruption, I don’t know what is. It may not be a smoking gun, but it’s a stinking pile of political excrement.

Mathews owes the community an apology for her sleazy backroom behavior and should immediately resign her seat on the city council.

Stephen Kessler’s column runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The library and the bigger picture

Santa Cruz city officials, led by City Manager Martín Bernal and power-broker Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews, have given citizens a false choice in the question of using Measure S funds to update, improve and renovate the downtown main branch of our public library. We have been told, with millions of dollars of studies and consultants for documentation, that the Church Street library is hopelessly decrepit and the only way to rescue it is to replace it with a new, “modern” library as part of a six-story mixed-use project that included, at first, mostly parking and now has a lot of “affordable housing.”

Only by pooling resources for parking with dedicated library funding, we’re told, can we have the library of our dreams. Otherwise forget about it, the old library is too far gone and too expensive to fix. So take your pick: a new library as part of a huge garage or no new library at all. This either/or set of alternatives is a self-fulfilling catastrophe that civic leaders like Mathews and Bernal should be ashamed of. They have repeatedly cited the fiscal necessity for this lousy choice, but there are plenty of legal ways to move money around in a budget—if the political will and vision exist to do so.

Why its promoters are so stuck on their garage-library chimera that they can’t see the lopsided popular opposition is as much a psychological as political question, and why they wish to be identified with such an awful insult to the cityscape—destruction of the last leafy open space within increasingly taller and more massive architectural surroundings—is a mystery, but their commitment to their horrible idea has been unshakable.

Maybe it’s true that you can’t fight City Hall. And yet, this is not a dictatorship and the powers that be, such as they are, are not omnipotent. If popular sentiment is strong enough and widespread enough and vocal enough—letters to the editor, emails to city council and management, petitions, op-eds, word of mouth—who knows, they might still come around to respecting the people they supposedly represent.

The library can certainly be rebuilt or renovated in place at Civic Center, especially if the mixed-use thing on Lot 4 is abandoned as an unfortunate misconception and the lot redesigned and redeveloped as a public plaza. A garage, if truly needed (which has been questioned by experts whose opinions the city solicited and then ignored), could be built or rebuilt on the site of another city parking lot or property. Some of the money saved by shelving the six-story garage-library-housing monster could be redirected to library renovation and reconstruction.

We can have our up-to-the-minute library with all the features we want—community room, teen area, children’s section, local history, genealogy, computers and internet galore—without sacrificing its character and civic integrity by tucking it into a concrete megalith.

This is just a sketch of a realistic vision for the library as part of a socially and commercially lively and attractive downtown. If people in position to make decisions, like the city council and senior management, would recognize and openly acknowledge the benefit to the community of resurrecting the library and abandoning their monstrous garage, they could pivot and work with the goodwill and support of the public rather than against it, everyone pulling together in the same direction. But they must want to do this.

If money exists for parking or housing, then a major social and cultural asset like the library—arguably more important than City Hall itself, which is mostly offices—must also be fundable from city coffers. Economically times are tough, and nothing may be affordable for a while. But this is an opportunity to rethink prior assumptions.

If a beautiful, dignified library is not a top priority, independent of and more valuable than redundant and environmentally destructive parking, then the soul of our city is in worse shape than I thought.

Stephen Kessler’s column runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

A letter to parking garage advocates

To Santa Cruz City Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews, City Manager Martín Bernal, Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb and anyone else who still believes that a block-long six-story building with a five-story parking garage on top and a library on the bottom is a better use of the Lot 4 site on Cedar Street between Lincoln and Cathcart than an open plaza:

I wonder whether the coronavirus pandemic and its economic repercussions have changed your thinking about the need for another 300 parking spaces in the middle of downtown. It will likely be many years, if ever, before Santa Cruz recovers from the devastating impact the virus has had on local business, especially the restaurants, bars and live entertainment venues, which on weekend evenings used to draw the big crowds. Even pre-COVID, available parking downtown exceeded existing demand. There may not have been a metered spot in front of the shop you were going to, but within a block or two you could find a space on the street or in a city lot or garage, and you could walk. So in light of what is likely to be a reduced demand for parking, how do you explain the alleged need for hundreds more parking spaces? What is it about a multistory garage that you find so irresistible—architecturally, environmentally, socially, esthetically and economically? Why would you wish to leave as your legacy such abominable evidence of your years in power?

A public plaza, an open social and cultural space in a sunny south-facing location whose most beautiful and appealing feature is those big magnolias with their generous green planet-cooling shade, with dedicated space for the farmers market and Antique Faire—essentially what we have now but much improved by new landscape design and much, much cheaper to build than an ugly and instantly obsolete garage—seems such an obviously superior idea in every way that I’m baffled by your persistence in promoting your garage-library. And if you tell me that now “affordable housing” is the major component, then what was so urgent about building more parking?

Ah yes, the library, which you want to incorporate into your garage with “affordable housing” as window-dressing to sweeten the poison of your proposal. I understand your fiscal instinct to squeeze as much juice as possible out of available resources, but some ideas (as I’ve argued before) are just bad to begin with and never should have made it out of whatever committee conceived them.

The library belongs where it is, grouped with City Hall and the Civic Auditorium, as a Civic Center complex which, when Center and Church Streets are closed for events, is also a pop-up plaza. With the imminent development of more multistory housing and commercial mixed-use buildings, downtown is going to need more open spaces, not fewer. To renovate the library where it is—a far more environmentally and fiscally sound option than constructing a giant garage, with or without a library—maintains the integrity of our Civic Center and will help to advance the proposed renovation of the Civic Auditorium.

If and when tourism and dining and entertainment and retail return to our downtown in whatever new forms they take, a plaza or commons where people can congregate for social interaction will be a far greater attraction for visitors (both local and out-of-town) than a monstrous block of concrete, no matter how nice a library is under it.

Soon the city council library subcommittee will submit its report to the council, presumably with recommendations. I hope they will see the “health in all policies” common sense of abandoning the ill-conceived garage and deciding to renovate our main library, even if it means raising additional money—perhaps from funds saved by scrapping the garage. Nobody knows what the future holds, but it’s a good bet that attractive open space will prove a far more practical investment than a concrete megalith meant to accommodate cars that are unlikely to materialize.

Stephen Kessler’s column runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Be green now. Save Lot 4. Rebuild the library.

Last month I attended the Santa Cruz Downtown Library Renovation Cost Assessment Community Meeting, an opportunity for Abe Jayson and Katie Stuart of Jayson Architects to introduce the public to their ideas for redesigning and rebuilding the Church Street library on its current site within the budgetary constraints ($27 million) given to them by the city. Jayson was not advocating for this option but presenting a picture of what is possible and evaluating its feasibility. Their presentation was the first specific example we’ve been given—unlike the purely conceptual and imaginary notion of a mixed-use parking-library-housing (-office-retail?) thing—of what a reconceived library might look like, and what it would cost at current rates (expected to escalate 8 to 10 percent per year).

The city’s premature attempt to impose on Santa Cruz their ill-conceived garage-library elicited a backlash in the community that has moved the City Council to appoint a subcommittee (Justin Cummings, Sandy Brown and Donna Meyers) to evaluate possible options. Jayson’s objective take on renovation was a reality check for partisans of all persuasions. By reducing the footprint of the existing building to its seismically sound core 30,000 square feet with a higher proportion of publicly accessible space, replacing the one-story outer sections with landscaping and usable outdoor patios, and turning the entrance toward Center Street facing City Hall, the newly redesigned and reconstructed library would remain, appropriately, an integral part of Civic Center. When the Civic Auditorium is renovated, as planned, the combination will revitalize the civic (as distinct from commercial) heart of Santa Cruz.

Rebuilding the library where it stands would also spare the magnolia trees and open space of Lot 4, targeted as the site for the garage-based project a few blocks away. The reduced square footage would make for a less-expansive space than some would like to see, but no one has shown us how the mixed-use model would produce a better library. And while some of the adult book collection would have to be distributed among the branch libraries to make more room for children’s books, the system would continue to function as it does now, with books freely circulated from one branch to another. Renovation of the two-story core of the library would also be a far “greener” use of the existing building than tearing it down or constructing a concrete behemoth on Cedar Street. And it costs less to heat and cool and maintain a smaller building.

The rub is that in order to do more than a bare-bones renovation for $27 million it will cost an additional $7 million (at current rates) to add the esthetic touches and handsome landscaping that would make it a stunning architectural attraction. Additional funds would likewise be needed to build the library-garage, and nobody knows or is willing to guess how many more millions of over-the-top dollars that would require. Ace fundraiser Vivian Rogers of Friends of the Library claims that it’s easier to raise money for a new and bigger project than for the scaled-down remodel of the old library—but that is a self-defeating prophecy reflecting her own institutional preference for the mixed-use megalith. Someone who believes in the value of conservation and renovation, a well-informed, articulate enthusiast, could surely convince prospective donors of both bang-for-the-buck and environmental benefits of leaving the library in Civic Center, where it belongs.

The next stage of this saga is a call for proposals, with specific designs rather than vague ideas, of what the mixed-use block-long five-story structure would actually look like, and what it would cost. Then the City Council and the community can compare the choices and people can decide for themselves what is most healthy for downtown, long term.

If I had $7 million to spare, I would rather invest it in an environmentally sensitive, appropriately scaled and located rebirth of a building whose bones are good than in a space-consuming, auto-centric Taj Garage that would obliterate one of downtown’s most attractive open spaces.

Instead of an interview with Cynthia Mathews

A little over a year ago I received an email from Santa Cruz City Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews inviting me to meet her for coffee and conversation. “I have no particular agenda,” she wrote, “beyond wanting to understand where you’re coming from on some issues, and conversely sharing with you some of what’s shaping my thinking and actions on City issues.”

We met, and of course the main issue on her no-particular-agenda was the mixed-use library-garage about which where I was “coming from” had been spelled out repeatedly in this column, and on which she had brought a pile of documents to enlighten me as to why the garage-library I had described as a “monstrosity” was in fact a good thing for Santa Cruz, and she had the official reports to prove it. Congenially enough we questioned each other’s assumptions and conclusions about this provocative project and parted unchanged in our respective positions.

More recently Mathews—disqualified from deliberating or voting on the mixed-use thing (which now includes “affordable housing” as political window-dressing) due to her conflict of interest as the owner of property close to the site—helped put together a group called “Downtown Forward” to lobby in the theater of public opinion for the five-story garage-library-housing structure to replace the mature magnolias and liquid amber trees currently gracing the parking lot on that site (Cedar and Lincoln streets, home to the Farmers Market and Antique Faire). I wrote about the pep rally Mathews orchestrated launching Downtown Forward a few weeks ago, and asked a few questions I didn’t get a chance to raise at the event, which was promoted as a “press conference” but allotted no time or space for questions from the press.

Since then I contacted Mathews again and she agreed to talk via email, so I sent some questions she could answer in writing to be sure she was not misquoted, but our agreed-upon deadline has passed and she hasn’t replied. Perhaps some of my questions were more pointed than she anticipated—not that there’s any secret about my viewpoint. As I’ve written, I think moving the library out of Civic Center and parking it downtown under a garage, no matter how dolled up, is a lousy idea for a lot of reasons I don’t have room to repeat here.

But libraries and garages aside, perhaps (I can only guess) it was the political questions that gave her pause. Questions like this: “Your recusal from City Council deliberations and vote on the mixed-use project and your campaign to promote it outside the council … looks like an end-run around council protocol. Have you considered resigning from the council in order to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest?”

And this: “If Chris Krohn or Drew Glover were operating as you are outside council boundaries to promote a project or policy they were disqualified from voting on, do you think the community would approve, or would the people supporting a recall find that additional grounds for their removal?”

I am no fan of Krohn or Glover, whose self-righteous behavior as “woke” demagogues has inspired a backlash that threatens to eject them from office, but I think the recall is a waste of time. Nor am I calling for the recall of Mathews, who is equally lusty for power but far more skilled at leveraging it via outside-the-chamber machinations. (I witnessed the technique myself in our coffee meeting.) What bothers me is that behavior which would not be tolerated from avowed leftists like Glover and Krohn is seen as no problem by the business-friendly liberals that are her base of support.

Mathews’s flagrant violation of ethical boundaries in her Taj Garage campaign strikes me as far more egregious in its deviousness and likely negative long-term impact on downtown Santa Cruz than anything Krohn or Glover could ever accomplish. Why the mixed-users and recallers have not targeted her as well is a question they should ask themselves.

Movers, Shakers, Marketers and Persuaders

With the marketing expertise of Miller Maxfield Strategic Communications & Public Affairs, the fundraising skills of Friends of the Libraries' Vivian Rogers and the political leverage of Cynthia Mathews of the Santa Cruz City Council, the new group Downtown Forward recently unveiled itself in a much-promoted “Press Conference & Launch” to advocate for its primary project, the garage-library mixed-use thing on the big tree-shaded parking lot at the corner of Cedar and Lincoln streets.

Councilwoman Mathews owns property within 500 feet of that corner, which according to California law constitutes a conflict of interest and therefore requires her removal from council deliberations and from voting on the mixed-use project. This hasn't stopped her from campaigning aggressively for it on her own time, which she is doing as a leading force behind Downtown Forward. City Attorney Tony Condotti assured me this is not illegal.

Whether or not it is ethical is another question. If she has a conflict of interest as a council member, I leave it to the reader and social philosophers to ponder where that conflict goes when she exercises her role as the city's most powerful politician in service of a project she's legally prevented from voting on. Mathews and her allies are full-speed-ahead on Downtown Forward as their chosen instrument to bend the public to their will—I mean, to influence public opinion.

Miller Maxfield, the PR firm, wrote and designed the sophisticated handout materials for the pep rally at the Museum of Art & History's Secret Garden, where a host of “stakeholders” and spectators gathered to hear enthusiastic pitches from representatives of various interest groups—a school board head, a homeschooling mom, an affordable housing advocate, a downtown business owner, and leaders from Friends of the Library and the Chamber of Commerce.

The so-called press conference never happened. A press conference means taking and answering questions from the press. If the disruptive screaming of a behaviorally disturbed woman was to blame for ending the rally without questions, that is unfortunate, but according to Rogers, whom I spoke with afterward, questions were never on the agenda. (The Miller Maxfield materials do include a page of FAQs.) I wanted to ask Mathews a few questions, but she walked the other way when she saw me coming.

So within the limited space remaining, I'll ask a few questions here.

With all the supposedly holistic planning being done for all of downtown, why has no plan been made, or revealed, for use of the allegedly decrepit (thanks to “deferred maintenance,” also known as municipal negligence) library building at 224 Church Street? If that structure can be renovated for another purpose, why not as a library? If the seismically sound building is to be torn down to make room for something else, how does that conform to the city's “green” environmental ethos?

If “30-60 affordable housing units,” according to Miller Maxfield, are to be included in the mixed-use parking library, how many parking spaces will those units displace? So those parking spaces aren't as desperately needed as we’ve been told? And what exactly does “affordable” mean? How do you know how much the new library (and whatever comes with it) will cost if you haven't even hired an architect or contractor? Are generic estimates of cost per square foot credible in a project this conceptually ambitious with no existing design? How is cutting down 11 mature trees to be replaced by a concrete structure a “green” building practice? Why can't existing parking lots—including the proposed new Front Street site of the farmers market—be heightened where they are to accommodate new needs for parking?

Isn’t Downtown Forward just a lobbying arm of the city and some business people—and of ethically conflicted council member Mathews—intended to influence ongoing deliberations of the council's library subcommittee? How much more money, and whose, above and beyond the $2,500 contract with Miller Maxfield, will be spent on public relations for Downtown Forward?

More questions and quandaries will follow in future columns.

Questions for the City on the Taj Garage

With Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal, Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb, Friends of the Library Executive Director Vivian Rogers, various parking planners and some city council members all campaigning aggressively for their dubiously conceived garage-library “of the future”—including some “mixed uses” in the form of shops, offices and apartments—this monstrous project looks like a done deal despite significant popular opposition. But the city council has yet to vote and, who knows, some of our elected leaders may still have an open mind.

With that democratic hope, and with decisions yet to be made, it’s time to ask a few questions that demand honest answers from the powers that be before their Taj Garage has been railroaded into existence over the objections of public opinion and the principles of cultural and municipal common sense. Officials will quote the findings of the Downtown Library Advisory Committee, the single architectural firm consulted and assorted bean-counters to argue that the Great Garage is the only affordable option for a new library—based on no plans, no bids and no real knowledge of what anything will cost by the time it is actually built. Their hypothetical numbers are promotional propaganda more than verifiable facts. They are estimates based on wish-fulfillment in order to kill debate.

So, about the Civic Center, under the assumption that the library will be moved from that location: Dear City Fathers and Mothers, with all your long-range plans for the whole downtown, why can't you tell us what you want to put in place of our public library? No one I have asked in a position to know this claims to have a clue, but that begs credulity and leads to speculation about what is being hidden in your agenda. So level with us: What do you want to do with the library and its lot? Tear it down? Build something else—and what, specifically? Renovate it for another purpose—and what, specifically? You owe us answers to these questions, and if you don't know, then you need to figure it out and report to the public before this project goes to the council for approval.

With the new campaign to renovate the Civic Auditorium into a first-class all-around cultural and performance venue, a parallel (or kitty-corner) renovation of the existing library is a natural combination that the city should be proud to support: a forward-thinking and tradition-conserving development that could excite the imagination of the community. You talk about the future, but do you really want your legacy to be an obsolescent parking structure? Wouldn't it be more future-worthy to make renovation of the library an integral part of a renascent Civic Center, thereby adding to the appeal of a freshly remodeled Civic?

With all the economic uncertainty caused by the president's tax giveaways, trade wars and assaults on the environment, do you really have any credible idea how much your garage will cost? Whatever figures you can quote now from your handpicked experts, I would bet real money that they’ll prove inaccurate. Why not admit what you don't know. Then we could talk about what would be best for our 21st-century city, and how to make it happen.

Has it occurred to you, for example, to retrofit or rebuild the block-long two-story garage between Walnut and Church as the high-rise parking behemoth of your dreams? That would have the added benefit of covering up the back of the Rittenhouse Building—not to mention saving the trees on your target site between Lincoln and Cathcart. (“Trees come and go, like buildings,” an architect friend assures me, but I love those old magnolias, which will only grow bigger and more beautiful if you leave them alone.)

Before you close this deal with the council and ram through a decision that will result in a monumental mistake, please get back to us on these questions—here, in the pages of the Sentinel—with answers we can believe, not talking points.