Questions for the City on the Taj Garage

By Stephen Kessler
Friday, August 24, 2018, in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

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.

– Stephen Kessler's column runs on Saturdays in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.