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Heaven's Gateway

Mike Rotkin
Robert Scheer

Ex-Marx the Spot: Santa Cruz City Councilmember Mike Rotkin is an unapologetic champion of a planned superstore development at the gateway to downtown SC.

Some fear that Gateway Plaza, a 10-acre superstore shopping center planned for River Street, will transform the face of Santa Cruz. Who's responsible? You're not going to like the answer.

By Kelly Luker

IF ALL GOES AS PLANNED, Santa Cruz residents will be able to spend their holiday dollars at a new shopping center come this December. Toys for Fido? Think PetSmart. The latest phone or copier? Try the new OfficeMax. And those must-have discount duds? No need to drive 15 minutes to the Capitola Ross Dress for Less--try the new one opening up in the 10-acre shopping center planned for River Street off Highway 1.

Named Gateway Plaza for its location near the entrance of downtown Santa Cruz, the development is designed to help make Santa Cruz into a retail destination. Critics find the name prophetic, fearing that the new cluster of superstores replacing the funky atmosphere now greeting visitors will look more like a threshold to Anytown, USA.

The 120,000-square-foot retail development has been almost a decade in the making. Still, in recent months, things have moved quickly--and quietly. The project found the welcome mat rolled out at the door of a city long known for its anti-business rhetoric.

The Gateway project shows Santa Cruz's remarkable shift from iconoclastic rebel to development-hungry municipality as the result of several factors: Proposition 13, the earthquake of '89 and, perhaps, a population that just got tired of fighting.

Gateway Plaza is a joint project of developer John "Jay" deBenedetti and the city's Redevelopment Agency. The Redevelopment Agency (RDA), which was created following the earthquake to seek out commercial tax revenue, began looking at the River Street area in 1990. DeBenedetti had already been in contact with property owners there. In 1994, the agency and deBenedetti's company, Cypress Properties, entered into an agreement to work together to develop the shopping center.

In order to rehab and upgrade the tattered and fraying corners of its municipality, the RDA is empowered to declare areas "blighted." Once an area has been so labeled, the city may force property owners to vacate for planned residential, industrial or, in the case of Gateway Plaza, commercial development by invoking eminent domain.

By RDA standards, which includes physical deterioration and economic problems, this parcel bordered by the San Lorenzo River, Highway 1 and River Street fits the definition of blight. Even some of the current tenants agree that revitalization was in order. As the place sits, a few small businesses working out of tin-sided shacks, Quonset huts and portable buildings are interspersed with weed-grown lots soaked in toxic chemicals from industries gone by.

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Tenants in the path of Gateway Plaza get the shaft.

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The Almighty Sales Tax

DEBENEDETTI SAYS he began talking about the place to city officials and property owners almost 10 years ago. While a major shopping center within blocks of the Pacific Garden Mall would have been hard to imagine back then, a few things happened in the ensuing years that transformed some folks' opinions of developers from pariahs to godsends.

Most notably, the events of Oct. 17, 1989.

"In 15 seconds we lost a third of our downtown buildings, and another third were destroyed beyond repair," says Councilmember Mike Rotkin of the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake. Sales tax revenues, which the city had come to rely on since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, plummeted.

Proposition 13, also known as the Jarvis-Gann Initiative, froze the official taxable value of property statewide. Rotkin says that before Jarvis-Gann, property taxes accounted for half the city's tax revenue. Now they contribute only a quarter.

While other cities may have read the writing on the wall and shifted to commercial-friendly codes, laid-back and liberal Santa Cruz was moving a little slower. Rotkin--who served on the city council from 1979 until 1988 (for four of those years as mayor) and was elected again in 1992--says the quake and the initiative were a potent one-two punch to the city's coffers.

"We'd noticed a slow decline in taxes, but didn't really worry" until 1989, he says. "Of course, if it hadn't been for Proposition 13, the earthquake wouldn't have been so devastating."

Before the temblor, Rotkin says, the city's process of approving building projects moved at a glacial pace and only allowed about one in three developments to proceed. In the year after the quake, 14 out of 14 building plans were green-lighted.

The Santa Cruz officials' most spectacular reversal of the historic "big business is bad" ethic occurred in 1994, when Costco announced that it wanted to move into town. A classic "big box" store, the membership warehouse faced some opposition from townspeople, but the council was overwhelmingly supportive of the chain.

Costco now brings a remarkable half-million sales-tax dollars yearly into city coffers.

Rotkin, who is not afraid to call himself a Marxist, says the dollars-and-cents reality of running the city's business won the day.

"It doesn't matter if you're a socialist or a right-wing conservative," he says. "Cities needs sales-tax revenue to survive."

Neo-Strip Mall

ROTKIN SAYS he remembers hearing about the Gateway project for the first time only three or four years ago. He has consistently been with the majority of the city council as its proponent.

"We thought a shopping center would be good there," Rotkin says, noting that he was in favor of the present design, which is available for viewing at the city Planning Department.

The latest plans show four large buildings--18,000 to 28,000 square feet--and three smaller ones surrounding a 522-space parking lot. The shopping mall's architectural heritage may best be termed faux industrial, an avowed attempt to harmonize with the nearby Sash Mill and Salz Tannery. Seamed metal roofs, tube-steel supports and aluminum window sashes will be used to accent the long expanses of stucco, hopefully charming bargain-hungry shoppers into a bygone era of steam-driven engines and 5pm whistles.

The only councilmember consistently opposed to the project was Celia Scott, who says she first heard of it in 1994. Like others, she agrees the area was ripe for commercial development, but opposed the scale, design and layout of Gateway Plaza.

"I would have liked to have seen something other than the traditional model," Scott says, adding, "I don't like driving down freeways and seeing big-box structures."

She says that in its haste to gain deBenedetti's business, the City Council did not follow guidelines for project approval. The General Plan, last updated in 1992, suggests a more detailed area plan before moving ahead with specific developments. Scott says that the city council voted to skip the area plan. "We didn't look at wider impacts that we should have," she says.

Rotkin says that the council skipped the area plan rather than get "hung up on a bunch of technicalities."

Councilmember Scott's design concerns are echoed by architect Mark Premack, a 20-year resident of Santa Cruz who has served on the city's historic preservation commission and zoning board, and worked with Vision Santa Cruz, an organization that drafted guidelines for post-earthquake downtown.

"It's a shopping center on the edge of a freeway," Premack says flatly. "It's a misnomer to call it a gateway."

Like Scott, Premack advocates mixed-use developments that cities are increasingly relying on to reclaim their towns from superstore shopping-center sprawl.

Towns from Tulsa, Okla., to Holland, Mich., have adopted the "neo-traditional" design--combining residential, office, retail and service establishments within walking distance of each other, creating a bustling community while preserving the town's character.

"There's a life that goes on after 5pm that takes place in real communities," Premack says. Pacific Avenue, with numerous retail shops, a grocery store, evening entertainment and apartments, is one example.

In contrast, shopping centers like Gateway Plaza are designed to be auto-dependent with one purpose in mind.

Premack says the land was zoned "community commercial"--which allowed the city and its developer to go far beyond the one-stop shopping mall. But the city declined.

"We're talking about fear and greed," Premack says bluntly. "People are afraid of trying something different and just want to make as much money as they can."

"The sad reality is that progressives do not have a well-developed aesthetic," Premack says, adding that they subscribe to "that terrible equation where the ends justify the means, which unfortunately detracts from the efforts to build community."

In other towns, big-box giants have been forced to use more progressive designs as a concession to public pressure. That didn't happen with Gateway Plaza because there was none.

"There was no public input on this," Rotkin says. "I tried to encourage the press to come [to the hearings], and virtually no one came. Only two people showed up at the last design meetings."

Mark Premack says Santa Cruz citizens will have nobody to blame if they don't like what they see sprouting up on River Street over the summer.

"The fact is, we'll have the city we deserve," he says.

"It's worth people in the city thinking about that rather than pointing fingers."

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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