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Reimagining the Commons in Santa Cruz with Mark Lakeman

Building a new downtown commons, and so much more!

Instigating creative mischief in downtown Santa Cruz!

Context

Did you know that in the next 10 years, all of the surface parking lots in Downtown Santa Cruz may be redeveloped? What is the best possible future for these places in downtown Santa Cruz, from lot 4 where the farmer’s market is, to lot 7 next to New Leaf, and lot 22 at 440 Front Street and the San Lorenzo River? We might be looking at a completely different social and ecological landscape.

Downtown Santa Cruz Farmers Market. Photo credit: DowntownSantaCruz.com

You may have heard that within the last year, a vocal group of Santa Cruz citizens rejected plans to build a new Downtown Santa Cruz Library on the parking lot where the Wednesday farmers’ market takes place. This lot where so many of us have purchased fresh produce, flowers, and local goods over the years is named Lot 4.

Photo credit: City of Santa Cruz

The library plan included not only a new library on the ground floor of Lot 4, but also a five-story parking garage above the library.

Efforts to reject this plan were led by the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, which advocates for alternatives to  Highway 1 widening. They gathered downtown business owner critique of the plan on their website, there’s Facebook page devoted to the issue here, and there’s a website titled Don’t Bury the Library with additional resources–including a song!

Residents questioned why the library couldn’t be renovated and updated in its current location, with the $27 million already raised from state funding, and the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation and a new group called the Downtown Commons Advocates brought attention to the fact that there isn’t a need for more parking in downtown.

The research shows that we actually don’t have a shortage of parking for tourism and downtown events. Our biggest parking crunch is during weekdays (Monday – Friday 1pm-5pm), which can be alleviated through innovative strategies with the downtown business community. For instance, Santa Cruz recently implemented an EcoPass program that provides free bus passes to all downtown employees, paid for by parking revenues. Other strategies include encouraging more bicycle and e-bike commuting and carpooling.

In May the City Council plans to consider a resolution offering a permanent home to the Farmers Market at its current location.

If the Council rejects the garage-library plan, many people are asking: “Now that we know what we are against, what are we for? What sorts of functions would we like to see in lots 4, 7 and 21 and throughout our neighborhoods for that matter?”

To delve into this question as a community, the Downtown Commons Advocates and Santa Cruz Permaculture invited our friend and expert on designing community commons, Mr. Mark Lakeman, to visit Santa Cruz at the end of March.

Through a four-day schedule of presentations and workshop, Lakeman spoke with more than 100 people in Santa Cruz about how communities can effectively work together to design and create commons. He drew from his years of experience as an architect and community placemaking advocate through organizations he’s cofounded like City Repair Project and Communitecture. Lakeman has participated in the creation of more than 300 new community-generated public spaces in Portland, Oregon, where he is from.

This article highlights the conversations, inspirations, and ideas that emerged during four events that centered on this idea of creating a downtown commons, redesigning the city for urban placemaking, and fostering community resilience. It also explores what some next steps might be as we collectively reimagine Lot 4 and other locations in downtown Santa Cruz.

Friday night presentation and Q+A

On Friday, March 30, Mr. Lakeman spoke to a crowd of 80 people at Louden Nelson Community Center during a public event titled “Imagining the Downtown Commons” hosted by the Downtown Commons Advocates group.

Rick Longinotti, who is also active in the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, introduced Mark Lakeman.

This presentation was video recorded and is available on YouTube here.

Mr. Lakeman started by telling the story of how the struggle for commons in downtown Santa Cruz is reminiscent to a bedside story from his father. His father had been a city planner in Portland at the time when a new parking garage was going to be created. Instead, the community organized to stop the garage and created a public square in Portland. Supposedly this was the first new public square in a major U.S. city in 60 years!

Photo credit: City of Portland

Present at the event were elected officials, people from the downtown Santa Cruz business community, architects and developers, UCSC students, and concerned citizens.

There was a tremendous sense of hope and motivation from the event. It felt like this night was the start of something!

Saturday workshop at India Joze

The next day a group of 10 people gathered for a workshop with Mr. Lakeman hosted by Santa Cruz Permaculture to dive deeper into the subject. The workshop was titled “Reimagining the City: Urban Placemaking with Mark Lakeman,” and it took place at India Joze in downtown Santa Cruz.

Overall, the workshop explored the idea of creating commons in downtown Santa Cruz as well as throughout Santa Cruz neighborhoods.

Specifically, participants discussed the following areas and ideas:

  • a central downtown commons at Lot 4 (where the farmers’ market is currently held);
  • a secondary commons at Lot 7, which is the lot behind Kianti’s and Assembly;
  • the new development at lot 22, which will face towards the San Lorenzo River;
  • turning Cathcart, Cooper, and parts of Pacific Ave into pedestrian corridors; and
  • ephemeral placemaking projects that we can start working on right now!

A sketch of downtown Santa Cruz that was created during the workshop.

An idea that had immediate buy-in from the group was to get a monthly permit to have outdoor movie nights and community conversations in Lot 4 so that we could start prototyping the idea of a downtown commons in that space.

Some of the themes and ideas that emerged throughout the workshop included:

  • Through signage and intentional design choices:
    • Ground the commons with connection to history, honoring those who have lived here before, especially indigenous caretakers. Recognize the changes that have occurred in this place.
    • Establish and steward connection, inspiration, understanding, and affinity between the human-built environment of the city and the unique ecosystems of natural and marine life around and within it. Remind everyone that nature is not separate. Include habitat and watershed restoration techniques into designs.
  • Identify projects that can happen right away to build momentum, community support, and have fun, while also holding a long-term vision for the places identified above.
  • Invite and involve children and all community members in the outcomes. Support intergenerational collaboration and encourage diverse perspectives.
  • Co-create amenities with and for our houseless neighbors by listening for needs and co-designing resources to address them through this process. (For more on why placemaking work must actively address issues of inequity and accessibility, check out this article, “Placemaking When Black Lives Matter.”)
  • Welcome participation, build common ground among stakeholders, and build momentum through intentional, thoughtful, and strategic design processes.
  • Use the downtown commons as a catalyst for societal transformation, stronger connections between citizens and local government, a more resilient urban core (economically and socially), and deeper opportunities for human connection and creativity.
  • Emphasize the San Lorenzo River as a key focal point for reconnecting folks with the natural world and placing our community within the local ecosystem. Spark conversations about health of our river ecosystems and our human ecosystem.
  • Celebrate our community as a locus for ecological farming and support the connection between local farmers and community.
  • Create a dynamic and inviting place for festivals and markets that support local farmers, bakers, makers, artists, musicians, and organizations.
  • Embrace the metaphor of “Santa Cruz” (meaning Holy Cross) as sacred interconnection. We are at a confluence of so many things: land and sea, river and sea, cultures crossing.
  • Advocate for built environments that center the safety and needs of sustainable, human-powered, and human-scale transportation modes.

Among the abundant ideas and inspirations that emerged throughout the workshop, there was a question about how to organize this effort. Some possibilities including creating a new Santa Cruz City Repair Project to help organize and connect the various projects that can happen around the city.

Another thought was to put our efforts into the newly formed Downtown Commons Advocates group, which defines itself as “a group of business and community members advocating for a permanent home to the Farmers Market at its current location in Downtown Santa Cruz.”

A third idea was to bring back Transition Santa Cruz, which was active for a few years as part of the Transition Towns movement but disbanded in 2014.

Fortunately in Santa Cruz we have an abundance of organizations, community groups, and businesses who have experience, areas of focus, and networks of community members that are in alignment with the values of community commons and placemaking. Coming together in some way to co-create a commons in Santa Cruz will offer deeper opportunities for collaboration, partnerships, and relationship.

The workshop was a tremendous success, and everyone left with a sense of hope and motivation.

Tuesday night community conversation at Kresge College’s World Cafe

On Tuesday, April 2, Mr. Lakeman spoke at UC Santa Cruz to engage 25 students in conversations about the Lot 4 downtown commons and commons in Santa Cruz in general. The evening was co-hosted by Paul Mojaver, World Cafe Coordinator with the Kresge Common Ground Center.

Question 1 was posed by the World Cafe organizing team: “What might be possible with public squares & reclaiming the commons?”

Question 2, which emerged from the group, was “What would we use the space for besides the market? What can we already prototype right now?”

Some themes and ideas that emerged through these conversations included:

  • Politics
  • Sports
  • Dance
  • Performances with a stage
  • Architecture/layout, pop-up parklets
  • Art, movie nights
  • Food
  • Public discourse

One student spoke about having a central park at their home town in the Central Valley. In their community, this park is an integral gathering place and commons.


The conversation brought some diverse perspectives, concerns, and suggestions to the issue. The students seemed to be primarily concerned with who would use the space and for what, relative to what the space will look like. Most everyone agreed that it being a place for political activism and discussion, music and dancing, and performances would be a great addition to downtown, since we’re currently lacking a permanent, dedicated gathering space.

Wednesday night community conversation at Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild meeting

Every first Wednesday of the month, the Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild meets at the Live Oak Grange for a community potluck and Open Space Technology session (learn more here). These meetings are open to the public, and you are invited to join us next time!

Melissa Jüllig was inspired by the conversations and learning she experienced at all of these events with Mark Lakeman, so she hosted a 30 minute session during an Open Space at the Guild meeting to share an update about what had happened and get feedback from the group.

In particular, she shared the idea of hosting regular outdoor movie nights in Lot 4. Guild members were excited about the possibilities that were emerging and expressed interest in supporting these efforts.

Going Forth

Downtown Commons

Transportation corridors

Throughout Mark Lakeman’s visit, it was acknowledged that the most successful plan for reinvigorating the commons in downtown needs to take into account access. The participants at these events recognize the need for street designs that create safe, accessible, and efficient pathways for sustainable transportation (pedestrians, bicycles, ebikes, and buses).

Rather than build more parking garages, there’s a desire to move away from streets designed for the automobile and re-envisioned for human-scale and public transportation options.

Lot 4

The Downtown Commons Advocates and other interested community members are currently researching the feasibility of having a series of events at Lot 4, such as outdoor movie nights. One outcome is to build a deeper community connection to Lot 4 and create opportunities for further discussion about the vision for this place.

In June, the Santa Cruz City Council will be voting on a budget “that includes a garage-library-mixed use structure on the Farmers Market lot,” as described in this update by the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation from May 8, 2019. The update describes that “Next Tuesday [May 14] the Council will consider a proposal to authorize a Council subcommittee of Sandy Brown, Justin Cummings, and Donna Meyers to consider the future of the Downtown Library. The Campaign for Sustainable Transportation is proposing that a portion of the $87 million savings from not building the garage go towards filling the gap between the Library’s $28 million Measure S funds and the $38 million that the Library’s architect estimated would achieve the Library’s goals at the existing Library site. This looks like a win-win to us.”

You can sign their “Keep Farmers Market on Existing Site Instead of New Garage” petition here.

Neighborhood repair

Conversations have also begun about implementing the City Repair Ordinance in Santa Cruz so that people can utilize the parking strip between the road and the sidewalk for things like covered bike storage, little free libraries, gardens, benches, community composting and so much more!

This Placemaking Packet compiled by City Repair for the Village Building Convergence in Portland serves as a technical assistance packet for communities everywhere. It contains public process guidance, lists of established prototypes, and text for established ordinances for things like intersection repair, mid-block repair, and “Little Community Kiosks” that revolutionize public right of ways.

For more inspirational examples from Portland, visit the City Repair Project website.

Stay connected

Santa Cruz Permaculture will continue to share updates as these projects progress, so if you are not already signed up for our email list, please join today. We typically send two emails a month.

You can also Like the Downtown Commons Advocates on Facebook for future updates. The Campaign for Sustainable Transportation also meets on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of the month at 10am. Contact Rick Longinotti for location: Rick [at] SustainableTransportationSC [dot] org. Another way to receive updates is to sign this petition and opt-in to email updates.

Do you have ideas or examples related to public placemaking and creating a downtown commons? Please share this article along with your ideas and tag us in the post on Facebook!

Come to the Santa Cruz Permaculture Guild meetings to contribute to the conversation.

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