For 2024, Downtown Santa Cruz’s Changes Will Be Nothing Less Than Transformational

Here in the spring of 2023, what do we know so far about the year 2024?

Well, it’s another presidential election year — cue the groans of dread and exasperation — the Summer Olympics are coming to Paris and, much more concrete and immediate for locals, Santa Cruz will be entering a new phase in its ongoing superbloom of downtown development.

Unlike the election and the Olympics — which you could argue represent the same-old-same-old — the changes in Santa Cruz are likely to be transformational and might even define the city in the decades to come.

By the time of the California primary in March, downtown Santa Cruz could see occupants in three new apartment buildings, with several new retail shops or restaurants at the south end of Pacific Avenue. One major apartment complex on Front Street could very well be taking shape along the river, with demolition/construction beginning on a neighboring complex, as well as the new Metro station across the street. And it’s even possible that the site of the new Cruz Hotel will be poised to begin its construction as well, with even bigger projects, such as the new public library and the new Warriors arena, also coming into view on the horizon.

Since the gradual lifting of the pandemic shutdown, Santa Cruz has been engaged in a feverish effort to build and build some more, resulting in what could end up as the most transformative changes the city has seen since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The engine behind all this is, of course, housing — specifically, both the scarcity and high cost of housing. The city has taken it as an article of faith that the most effective way to address the housing crisis is to build as much of it as possible in the city center, even if that means pushing up to the heavens with more and more multistory buildings.

Whether or not the city wants to engage in the reconstruction of a wide swath of the downtown is increasingly an irrelevant question. That’s because the state of California is mandating this kind of development. In real numbers, that means the city of Santa Cruz is on the hook to produce more than 3,700 units of new housing before 2031. As a result, the look of downtown is changing almost daily. How is it likely to change even further as we go forward?

Next month, another corner will be turned when demolition is to begin on existing buildings along the Front Street corridor, as the the Riverfront housing project — the middle of three big projects on the river side of Front Street — moves forward. That corridor is the epicenter of the housing building boom in the downtown, an area we dubbed “Six Blocks” in September, as Lookout began its deep dive into the “Changing Santa Cruz” series.

Meanwhile, the buildings already looming over the south end of downtown are getting ever closer to completion. The largest of them, the enormous 205-unit Anton Pacific apartment building on Laurel Street, takes up the whole block between Pacific Avenue and Front Street. Anton Pacific is on track to open 2024 welcoming new residents.

“I would say we’re roughly 60 to 70% done with the project,” said Garrett Borges, development manager of the Sacramento-based developer Anton DevCo. “We’re hoping to have our first phase of units and retail spaces available by [the first quarter] of 2024.”

Adjacent to the Anton Pacific building will be Pacific Station South, an all-affordable-housing apartment complex that is also rapidly moving along to completion. The developer of that property said it’s possible that it could be open for new residents by the end of 2023.

Pacific Station North is yet another affordable-housing building that will face along Pacific Avenue, and will contain a newly envisioned Metro bus station behind it, emptying on Front Street. With the announcement Monday of a $30 million grant from the state to Santa Cruz Metro, the Pacific Station North development got a boost on its road to construction, with groundbreaking likely in the first quarter of 2024.

The Riverfront housing project — the middle of three big projects on the river side of Front Street — has its building permits to begin construction on a breathtakingly ambitious plan to “activate” (in developer jargon) the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. The Riverfront, a three-building complex with 175 new rental units, will be flanked on either side by another, even bigger apartment complex and a new hotel, all of which have grand plans to develop the riverwalk between Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street.

Riverfront’s neighbor to the north will be Five 30 Front, a 276-unit apartment complex developed by Santa Cruz’s Swenson Builders on the corner of Front Street and Soquel Avenue. Swenson’s Jessie Bristow said his company hopes to have its building permits in hand by the end of this year, which would mean that construction could begin in the early months of 2024.

At Front and Laurel is the site for the proposed Cruz Hotel, which is still in its “entitlements” phase (the part of the process before city council approval when city planners and other departments work with the developers to conform the proposed plans to city codes and regulations). That puts the hotel a bit behind its neighbors on the development calendar. Stephen Chan of Eagle Point Hotels said he hopes to reach the end of the entitlements phase in the next few months, which would mean that construction could begin on the Cruz Hotel sometime in the spring of 2024.

On top of what’s happening on Pacific and Front, a couple of blocks over, the Cedar/Center project — on the site of a former parking lot next to the Calvary Episcopal Church — is also going up rapidly, and it too could be ready for occupancy in early 2024. Down toward the beach, on Center Street across from the Scott Kennedy soccer field, Swenson Builders is planning another apartment building, called Calypso. This one has been approved and is ready to build. But, said Bristow, Swenson is currently on hold in its plans to build Calypso, which will be all studio apartments: “We’re kind of hoping and waiting for interest rates to get better before pursuing a loan on a project of that size.”

And, the focus of the contentious 2022 election Measure O (remember that?), the proposed new branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library will also feature new housing units, though we’re not likely to see those occupied until 2025.

Change is coming to Santa Cruz. It may seem slow now, but one day, in hindsight, it’s going to seem like it sure came quickly.

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