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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
The new live oakie: Annica Rose, who teaches yoga to people with disabilities, surprised herself by loving her new neighborhood behind the East Cliff Village shopping center.

Live Oak Grows Up

Santa Cruz County's most populous unincorporated area ponders a smart-growth future.

By Traci Hukill

Annica Rose admits she had some classist notions about Live Oak when divorce brought an end to her time in Santa Cruz's Seabright neighborhood. But with retirement around the corner and housing prices dwarfing her settlement, the petite, gray-haired yoga instructor needed to get practical. "I had resistance to moving to Live Oak, because Seabright is more upper middle class," she says. "And of course I didn't want to live in a mobile home. But in the end, that's what worked out, so here I am."

The interior of Rose's new coach is a serene, aromatic zone of incense and pale neutral tones, except for an enormous red chair where Rose sits curled up, talking about her adopted home. In her three years at Shoreline Mobile Estates, an orderly community tucked into the mishmash of houses and apartment buildings between Portola and Brommer on either side of 17th, her ideas about Live Oak have changed. Not only has she seen more divorced, older women like herself in the mobile home park, she's also come to appreciate the diversity of Live Oak. "What I love about Live Oak is it includes all kinds of people," she says. "There's less separation. People aren't afraid because they're used to people who are different from them--Hispanic families, poor people, older people. And it's more relaxed. We're all here," she grins, "hanging out in the orchard."

Live Oak's agricultural past persists in street names like Chanticleer and in a semirural feel along Seventh Avenue and some other roads. But although it remains unincorporated, Live Oak's simple country days are behind it. It's as dense as Scotts Valley and Capitola, according to a new report released earlier this year by the Live Oak Family Resource Center. The third-largest population center in the county, its Latino component is growing; the Live Oak School District now serves equal numbers of white and Latino students. In schools just blocks from Pleasure Point, nearly half the students qualify for free lunches. Graffiti peppers signs all over the community. A brazen public shooting in January drove home the realization that Live Oak has changed irrevocably.

Though it isn't even a city, Live Oak knows the travails of urban life. The amenities, not so much. Rose dreams of a store within walking distance where she can buy soy milk, but the nearest grocery stores are on 41st Avenue in Capitola and on Morrissey in Santa Cruz. Roy Johnson moved his light fixture manufacturing facility to Live Oak 18 months ago and loves it, except for having to drive everywhere. "One of the things that struck me when I moved here is, man, you couldn't get a sandwich anywhere," he says.

The combination of a lack of services and economic development, an economically stressed population and the fact that it's under huge pressure to develop could spell disaster for Live Oak--especially as it loses its slow-growth guardian on the county Board of Supervisors, Jan Beautz, to retirement.

Or it could be a tremendous opportunity for Live Oak to reinvent itself. That's the perspective taken by a group of people affiliated with Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), a nonprofit pressing for economic and political change in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

"Can we make communities where people can get the services they need and live and work in a walkable community?" asks Erika Hearon, co-director of the Live Oak Family Resource Center and a COPA member. "What you'll see looking forward in the next 20 years--and this is my personal opinion--is the need to make those types of mixed-use developments and really build more housing on transportation corridors in higher density. Not high density--we're not New York City--but really looking at how to integrate housing and transportation and business for the community, to look at lots of the different pressures on families.

"That is, in my opinion, good planning."

The 'Dumping Ground'
As she prepares to step down from the job she's held for 20 years, District 1 Supervisor Jan Beautz worries about two things: the county budget and growth in Live Oak. Beautz has complained about her district serving as the county's "dumping ground" for low-income and high-density housing. She doesn't want any more of either.

"I have not seen anybody say, 'Get me more high-density housing for my neighborhood,'" says Beautz. "It's already too crowded. When people talk about more crime, it's partly because there's more people."

Beautz also knows more high-density is on the way, regardless of who wants it. One of seven sites in the county designated for relatively high density (think two-story townhouses), with 40 percent of the units designated "affordable," is in Live Oak, off the freeway frontage road between 17th and 41st avenues.

Several other Live Oak sites will likely see some wangling in the coming years. The redevelopment agency owns 3 1/2 acres on Capitola Road near 17th, where the Live Oak Family Resource Center now sits. Barry Swenson Builders has the empty southwest corner at 17th and Brommer, which has seen a surge of activity in recent years with the arrival of Toadal Fitness, People's Coffee and Leo's Taqueria. And East Cliff Village Shopping Center at Portola and 17th--once home to a Deluxe Foods, a pharmacy and a post office, now hosting a dollar store, panaderia and cafe--is frequently cited as an example of underperforming commercial space.

Beautz is not impressed by calls for mixed-use development, which typically combines businesses on the ground floor with housing on higher floors. "Do you honestly think people's lives are going to improve just because there's mixed use?" she asks. She thought a proposal for three-story mixed use at East Village several years ago was too massive, and the neighbors evidently agreed. Nor is she enamored of COPA or the Community Snapshot report published in February by the nonprofit Live Oak Family Resource Center. Beautz questions the worth of the report's findings given that it excludes the sizable section of her district that lies north of Soquel Drive and includes the solidly middle-class neighborhood of Santa Cruz Gardens. (Family Resource Center co-director Elizabeth Schilling says that in the absence of an official definition of Live Oak, the report defined it as the area served by the Live Oak School District--basically south of Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and Capitola.)One thing almost everyone agrees on is the need for more commercial development.

"I think it's important for the community to get this shopping center going," says Karla Oliveira, owner of the Deli-icious Café in East Cliff Village Center. "I'm here all day and I hear people talking. Everyone complains that there's no grocery store. People come here to buy produce and milk." She points to a small cooler near the counter. "I also sell Kelly's bread."

Johnson, the light fixture designer, says he hopes the 17th and Brommer parcel near his studio will help ease congestion. "A restaurant/upstairs housing thing could be in order," he says. "That could be a key little spot for Live Oak. I'm all about people living and working close to each other."Beautz, too, wants neighborhood commercial, though she says there's too much competition for a full-service grocery store. As for housing, she's adamant. "I do think Live Oak has paid its dues."

Unpleasant Subjects
Live Oak may have paid its dues, but the old way of doing business isn't working. On a warm day in late April, Elizabeth Schilling turns into the Pine Knolls mobile home park on Capitola Road, a stone's throw from the border with Capitola. A sheriff's cruiser is parked at the entrance. The place is quiet. The first several rows of coaches seem tidy enough, if a little run down. Behind the main section of the park, though, along the edge of a lower lot, is a scene you'd never find in the neighborhoods where many of Pine Knolls' residents undoubtedly work as gardeners, maids and busboys. A ramshackle mobile home would look palatial here; these are travel trailers and motor homes housing Santa Cruz's invisible workforce. "In the summers they're sleeping on the roofs," Schilling says.

"I wouldn't disagree that it's in bad shape," says Beautz, who sits on the county's mobile homes commission, "but I guess I feel the county has tried really hard with mobile home issues." She points out that Pleasant Acres, an older park on 17th near Capitola Road, is about to get $2 million in infrastructure improvements through a county program, and that the county has helped some residents buy their parks.

For Jorge Zavala, situations like these point to a disparity that's hard to ignore. An assistant director for human resources at the umbrella nonprofit group Community Bridges, Zavala was born and raised in Live Oak. He doesn't remember noticing as a kid that the stretch of his street between 17th and Chanticleer--where the houses are smaller and funkier and most of the families Latino--had no streetlights. "It's pitch black!" he says. "Then I counted on the other side of Chanticleer. There are eight. There it is, right there, that disparity. And I never even noticed it."

As a member of COPA's Community Safety Strategy Team, Zavala works to counteract the effects of poverty and crowding on kids. He wants to get some appealing after-school programs going so boys will have something to do besides hang around with Santa Cruz's half-dozen gangs or try disturbing new drug combinations (a 13-year-old he knows was recently invited to try pot with crushed Vicodin mixed in). Homework clubs won't cut it for this group; Zavala wants something sports-related without the nerdy stigma of an adult-supervised program. Zavala's work is part of a trend that Santa Cruz County doesn't seem to want to acknowledge, says Hearon of the Live Oak Family Resource Center.

"I believe there's a fear that our community, especially in Live Oak, has changed over the last 10 or 20 years," she says. "That California has changed--it's no longer a white majority state. With demographic changes, people can feel threatened. And there is both overt and underlying racism at play here."

Another issue even broader than racism undergirds any discussion of the future: the simple fact of population growth. In the next four years California's population is expected to reach 40 million; by 2032 it will have topped 50 million. How Santa Cruz County deals with its share of this growth will determine whether it remains an inclusive, progressive community or falls into the typical coastal pattern of decrepitude proliferating to serve opulence.

"I think Live Oak is in a sense a microcosm of what's happening throughout the state," Hearon says. "And ignoring the issues will not make them go away."

At the Crossroads

Next month, Live Oak will elect its first new representative in 20 years. Metro Santa Cruz asks the contenders to peer into their complex community's future.

By Steve Hahn

Santa Cruz County would be utterly incomplete without Live Oak, yet the area makes do with the political equivalent of scrimping. Even though it boasts a population larger than Scotts Valley and Capitola combined, it has no city council or staff. It's represented by one lonely county supervisor, and even this political representative has other areas to worry about. When it comes time to get something done for Live Oak on the board, the District 1 supervisor must negotiate with four other supervisors, all of whom have their own constituents at the forefront of their minds. Briefly contrast that with the situation in the city of Santa Cruz, where the District 3 supervisor is joined by seven City Council members, all fussing and worrying about one geographical area, and it's clear that the supervisor overseeing Live Oak will always have an overflowing cup.

This has been the delicate situation facing current Supervisor Jan Beautz for the past 20 years as Live Oak has continued its transition from a rural chicken-farming town to a bustling urban center, with all the associated growing pains. Now, Beautz is ready to let someone else have a whirl at sticking up for the overlooked district wedged between Capitola and Santa Cruz. Beautz acted as a strong, often outspoken, activist for the area's interests, with a particular emphasis on neighborhood preservation, and her shadow will no doubt loom large over whoever takes the helm following the June election.

The four candidates vying to succeed Beautz all have different ideas about the future direction of Live Oak, but all agree that there is great potential in this hidden county gem.

Michael Pisenti, a member of the Live Oak School District board of directors, envisions a future for Live Oak that would include well maintained roads, adequate sheriff patrols and the ability of property owners to exercise their rights without undue interference from county officials. Pisenti is adamant that this vision can be implemented without more taxes. Instead, he advocates tightening up the way funds are currently spent.

"The roads are in terrible condition," he laments. "This is mainly because the Board of Supervisors has taken money that should have been allocated to fixing roads and spent it on useless things, like surveys and polls. They pigeonhole these reports and there's no action taken on it."

Pisenti says he would spend that money directly on road improvements in the Live Oak area. Another hot-button political issue in Live Oak is housing, both where it goes and how many people come along with any given development. Beautz has spent much energy protecting the area from being a "dumping ground" for low-income and high-density housing no one else wants. Pisenti would strike a different chord. When it comes to private developments, he believes politics should be left out of the equation.

Instead, he would revamp the planning process so the supervisors no longer had the ability to approve or deny projects. Under his vision, that power would be reserved for the Planning Department, which would be guided by zoning laws and other regulations set by the board. Supervisors representing neighborhood concerns wouldn't be able to block private developers. "People own property, not the government," says Pisenti. "We have a housing problem in our county, and this is mainly because of limited building permits and excessive charges for those permits."

Where Pisenti would step out of the way of private developers following county law, candidate John Leopold would step in, but in a different manner than Beautz has done. Leopold, who works as development director for the Social Sciences Division at UCSC, believes the supervisor does have a role to play when it comes to regulating development in Live Oak, but that there needs to be a more positive, less adversarial tone to neighbor-developer negotiations. Instead of fighting off housing developers as intruders, Leopold promises to work on compromises acceptable to both sides.

"Building housing that is out of scale with the neighborhood is a legitimate concern, but I think we can prevent housing from being built that is inappropriate while still having a positive vision of what can be accomplished and built," he says. "Right now, Craig French of Red Tree Properties can't even get his phone calls returned. Do you want to run the county in a way that treats people as adversaries or that brings people into the process?"

Leopold envisions bringing together neighbors in Live Oak to create a community plan that could be presented to developers interested in working in the area. This way, guidelines would be set down before developers draw up plans that neighbors will never agree to.

"There's a mentality now that we have to stop everything, that we're a dumping ground, that these developers are trying to hurt us," he says. "Well, what about developing some positive goals? Let's figure out what those are and support the people paying our taxes."

Carolyn Busenhart, owner of Charisma Hair Salon, wants a future for Live Oak that is "crime free." Most days, there are only two sheriffs' deputies assigned to patrol the Live Oak area. After two shootings in the past six months, it has become clear to all the candidates that more deputies are needed. However, Busenhart sets herself apart from the other candidates by promising to focus on harsher penalties as a solution instead of preventive measures such as more after-school activities. "Right now, the strategy is to involve kids in programs, but that hasn't been working," argues Busenhart. Instead, she'd like to see harsher penalties for repeat offenders of gang-related activities. "We need to change our tactics and do something else. We need to get tougher on the gangs. Maybe that would start scaring some sense into them so they will leave the gangs."

Busenhart, who bills herself as the taxpayer's candidate, also envisions a more stringent use of county resources in Live Oak, especially in the transportation realm. While some hold up the purchase of the rail corridor that runs through Live Oak as a way to improve traffic congestion, Busenhart labels it a "useless waste of county funds."

Candidate Betty Danner, a former county employee and executive director of the Santa Cruz Criminal Justice Council, would follow in Beautz's footsteps more than any other candidate, which is probably why Beautz is endorsing her for the position. While Danner's first focus would be on reducing crime, she would also continue the fight against high-density housing being placed in Live Oak.

Her strategies for reducing crime are innovative. She would institute a juvenile drug court that would offer treatment instead of punishment for youth caught up in drugs, but would also hold up high standards to ensure they stay clean. She would expand the teen court program, which prosecutes high school students involved in low-level offenses without putting a mark on their record. Finally, she would reach out to gang members, especially the gang leaders, and attempt to get them involved in more positive group activities, such as a sports league.

"Generally, gang members don't join school-sponsored sports teams, but sports are a great way to engage our youth in positive activities," she says. "If we could set up a youth league, where the kids have a say in how, when and where the activity happens, they want to play. It's amazing how different that is from us telling them how, when and where to play. "Danner would also work to strengthen the Live Oak identity, something that has taken a more coherent form over recent years as neighborhood organizations grow. The first step in this direction could be something as simple as a few signs at the area's borders saying "Welcome to Live Oak."

"It's simple, but you start to build a sense of identity with something like that," says Danner. "People always say, 'Where does Live Oak begin? Where does it end?' Identity is the beginning, and then you need to build upon that."

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