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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Curmudgeon At Large: Mark Primack works out of his firm's Swift Street studios, located next to the West Side property proposed for the transit district's MetroBase project.

Fighting City Hall

For over a decade, former Zoning Board member Mark Primack has ruffled feathers. But he speaks his mind and doesn't care who hears.

By John Yewell

Tell us about the circumstances under which you left the Zoning Board.

I was up for reappointment, and rather than reappoint me they decided to dis-appoint me. It came on the heels of the Borders controversy. I was somewhat outspoken. I didn't feel that the city's zoning ordinances were the battleground [on which] to fight against corporate America. It's too messy. It was corrupting the process in order to do some good global deed. Katherine Beiers, to her credit, who is one of the people who voted me off, took the time to explain to me why.

And what did she tell you?

That the council majority thought it was really important to have people on their advisory bodies who would vote the way they told them to vote. Her words. I explained to her that when that's the case the city no longer had advisory bodies.

They're just rubber stamps?

And the problem with rubber stamps is that they're attempting to rubber stamp a council that itself didn't know what it was doing.

Is this a council that needs advice and is no longer going to get it?

Yes, exactly. Which is why the job of being a council member has become such a strenuous, stressful job. They don't trust staff, and they have no advisory bodies that are worth listening to. It's also the reason you can't get people to run for City Council, because it's too much work.

Let's talk about housing. That's one of your big issues--not just as a Zoning Board member but as an architect. You've talked about the importance of dispersing rental housing, making "granny units" legal and more available, and making it cheaper to build rental housing.

Yes. There's no distinction in our ordinances and fees between rental housing and speculative, for-sale housing. You pay huge fees for building, because building is still considered a crime in this community. So the fees are really penalties.

You pay by living unit?

It's by living unit, and to a certain extent it's by square footage, and to a certain extent it's by the number of bedrooms. One of the big fees are water hook-up fees, and basically if you're building a 400-square-foot studio apartment, you're paying the same water hook-up fees as if you're building a 4,000-square-foot mini-mansion. There is no distinction between affordable housing, smaller housing and larger luxurious housing in terms of city fees.

And people like it that way, in your opinion?

I think that at the heart of most conservatism in Santa Cruz is the sense that there are already enough people here and that more people need to be discouraged.

And by conservatism, you mean "progressives"?

Yes. Environmentalists, the whole community, basically, that each election year promises to prevent us from becoming San Jose, is really saying that a month or two after they arrived in Santa Cruz, whenever that was--whether it was last year or two decades ago--the month after they arrived was the month in which there suddenly became too many people here. That was the month in which the door should have closed. And everyone talks nostalgically about that time, that 30-day period when they first arrived when everything was in a perfect state and Santa Cruz was a lovely place to live.

I came here with 50 dollars in my pocket, and it appeared to me that there were already enough people here in Santa Cruz the day before I arrived. My feeling was always, if I was going to justify my existence here it was going to be through making a contribution to the community. I came here and immediately got involved in saving Pogonip and creating the Greenbelt--something that Paul Lee and I generated, that concept of the Greenbelt in '76 and '77.


You once said, "The rhetoric is all about diversity, but the actions are all about exclusivity."

I think that we all talk about diversity in this community, we all talk about how special Santa Cruz is. And we have to enumerate what those special qualities are. We find ourselves talking about surfers, artists, bohemians and poets, and yet we have done absolutely nothing to support those communities.

When we talk about affordable housing we talk about subsidized housing, which tends to be pork-barrel projects with their own bureaucracies with political friends whose jobs are supported. We house people who form political constituencies. In the meantime, outside this realm of these very specific and very limited public housing projects, these token housing projects, we've created an environment in which only wealthy people can afford to live here.

What was funky and interesting about Santa Cruz was funky and interesting within an environment that was tolerant of an illegal unit here, or somebody with a cabinet shop in their backyard, somebody renting to friends in an attic space. Even the occasional camper parked in somebody's driveway. This is what made for a diverse community. I built my house seven years ago. Up until then I was a renter. I know what it's like to rent in Santa Cruz.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

We were talking the other day about the Dolphin and Lee project in Beach Flats. There are state laws and local ordinances about relocating people in these circumstances, but you raised an objection to the idea of guaranteeing housing. Isn't that a natural reaction to what has happened in the housing market?

Part of the problem in Santa Cruz, and I think that this is really the model of current politics, is "talk global, act yokel." Revolution against the system doesn't happen in a little town. We have this thing called private property, and the degree to which we try to manage it is the degree to which we often times shoot ourselves in the foot. Why do we have a slum in Beach Flats?

It wasn't a slum 20 years ago. Those were all beach cottages, and people came in the summer and they rented to students or others during the winter months. It was eyed as a location for redevelopment, and so people went in and bought those properties with the idea that they were going to get torn down and big development projects were going to happen.

So they left them alone?

They had no interest in keeping the buildings up because they were going to go away. But then the progressive City Council came into office, and they weren't interested in that kind of development.

So it's in limbo, nobody wants to buy the properties because nobody knows what to do with them?

I don't know what the speculators are doing, but it is in limbo, there's no question. The defeat of the Beach Area Plan was a real setback. It was throwing the baby out with the bath water. There were potentially some positive things, but they essentially said, we're going to reduce this notion of looking at an entire area to a war against Charles Canfield and the Boardwalk. We killed the entire project, the entire planning process, to thwart the expansion of the Boardwalk. You know, the Seaside Company is no better at long-term planning than the city of Santa Cruz. There's nothing really remarkable in what they did, but to polarize the community is to guarantee that nothing is going to happen.

It happened with Vision Santa Cruz. The first six or nine months after the earthquake, with the creation of Vision Santa Cruz, there were essentially battle lines being drawn. There was just too much wrangling, too much political maneuvering. Nothing happened for a long time until there was an election and people got out of office, things moved around a bit and loosened up a bit and the community started working together. But even an earthquake couldn't dramatically shake up the kind of polarization this town feeds off of.

One of the reasons that I've always been distanced from the political community here is that I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty. I'm not looking for the moral high ground, I'm not interested in being viewed as some pure saint. I'm an architect, and I'm involved in building projects. And I want to have a positive effect on the community. And I'll do it as a member of the Zoning Board, or Vision Santa Cruz, or if there's a developer who wants to do something good I'll work with the developer. I'm not running for office, I've never run for office, and I'm not afraid to stand up to a mob. I have no idea what my chances would be if I ran for office.

Are you thinking about that?

A lot of people put a lot of pressure on me this year.

Like who?

Everybody, except a few of the people who are on the City Council.

Are you considering it?

No, because I have a couple of mortgages, and I have a full-time job and I have a family.

Is this City Council incompetent?

This City Council is completely incompetent. It's an indication of their incompetence that a few months after they were elected to office, they were pushing to have their campaign managers hired as paid administrative assistants. The micromanaging required too many hours. They came into office, and they wanted to fire the city attorney, they wanted to fire the city manager, they wanted to fire the redevelopment director, because all of these people were in the pockets of developers. The way you can tell if somebody is in the pocket of the developers is if they're pragmatic and they talk about the reality of the situation, and you don't want any of that.

Let's talk about MetroBase. You were active in opposing that.

Two years ago, I tried to slow the process down of the transit district selecting this site. I went to them, and I said you know, nobody on the West Side knows you're doing this. The supervisors, the City Council members who were on the board. They basically said no, we've done our legally required advertising, our bases are covered. Politicians in high places told me it was futile to oppose this project. It's pork barrel. That's what this is all about. You know what you can build with $40 million? A lot more than bus sheds.

Are you saying there's a bunch of stuff in this that doesn't need to be there?

Basically, what you do is you go after a bunch of money, and you fill the envelope. You can always find people to spend it.

I guess it's no longer a done deal, more like a dead deal, at least on the West Side.

It's not over; it's still the preferred site officially until they find another one, as a practical matter. And the reason it's dead is not a good reason. The reason it's dead is because this is an election year.

Why isn't that a good reason?

The good reason is because it's a poor choice of locations; because of all the traffic on Mission; because this is 20 acres of industrial land and our industrial land is every bit as precious as our ag land--perhaps more precious; because that's jobs over here, so that people on the West Side don't have to drive to San Jose to work.

You brought up politics. Do you think district elections would have made any difference to this issue, MetroBase?

District elections would have made a difference in that we wouldn't have had the present council.

Some say with seven citywide council members it's impossible for any one of them to vote for this. Proponents of district elections say if you had them you'd have at least one person looking out the neighborhood. And two years ago MetroBase might never have gotten rolling downhill.

What people say is that district elections don't work because you get everybody worried about their own district. And the model for that is the county. You have these vastly different places geographically detached from one another, and they have their own representatives who are looking out for their interests, and this horse trading that goes on among the supervisors. And everybody says, well if you have district elections in the city you're going to have the same thing. But the city is different. The city is a relatively cohesive place. What happens on the East Side affects me on the West Side.

So do you favor them?

Oh, absolutely. If for no other reason than they'll simply break the machine that controls Santa Cruz.

Won't it set up seven little machines?

But nobody can support seven little machines.

But you enhance the power of neighborhood groups, don't you?

What I do know is, when it comes to running for office, running for office in the entire city is a lot different than running for office in your neighborhood, for a couple of reasons. One: It's less time-consuming. Two: You can't B.S. the people in your home area the way you can B.S. people who've never seen you before.

I want to talk a little more about how we accommodate the influx of people we're dealing with from Silicon Valley. That's a reality, isn't it?

I said this right after the earthquake: We have to stop thinking we're a town and start thinking we're a city. Let's think about density downtown. The model we have right now is the suburban model, where we try to cram housing along the fringes. It doesn't make any sense. We can support a lot of people in the downtown area. It's what makes a bus system work, it's what makes a downtown work.

You once said "affordable housing is not an environmental issue; bad planning is an environmental issue."

My idea of good planning is you enlist the entire community in determining what the community wants to be. Then you make it as profitable as possible for people to provide it. We have a general plan telling us where we want to be, and yet every time somebody comes in to fulfill the general plan we put the knives to them.

You've expressed reservations in the past about low-income housing, or projects like that. Explain your feelings about that.

I've yet to see bureaucratic solutions that work when we're dealing with necessities of human beings. We talk about affordable housing, and yet we ignore the real affordable housing [which] is affordable to build, to rent. It's not subsidized. Real affordable housing is housing that goes up cheap and rents cheap. And that, in Santa Cruz, is the illegal unit. And the illegal unit is ignored. We don't have any statistics as to how many of those exist.

There was a time when I first came on the Zoning Board when those were being busted left and right. People wanted them out of their neighborhoods. They were all coming to the Zoning Board, and somebody left the Zoning Board every day in tears because he'd just bought a house, and the way they were going to pay for it was they were going to rent the illegal unit in the back. That was the opportunity, with the change in ownership, and they were busted. That was my initiation, was to watch this reaction, people saying, 'We don't want renters in our neighborhood.'

You're saying that's the solution: renters everywhere.

Yeah. I say, the more the merrier. The reason urbanism works is that people have a certain urbanity. After the earthquake somebody said, why can't Santa Cruz be more like Paris? I said, because we're not Parisians. We don't know how to live that way, or build that way, or plan that way. What was so beautiful about Paris was that it was built before there were elevators, and then they built seven stories high. And so you had all classes of life in one building. The rich people lived on the second floor, and the poorest people had to drag their groceries up to the seventh floor.

And the food and clothing you needed were down on the first floor.

Exactly. You had the strata of classes in each building in Paris, and you had diversity. That's what made Paris a beautiful city. You create gated communities here in Santa Cruz, you don't have a beautiful city; you have a fortified city.

So you're sort of a small "c" communist, in that you want everybody to be able to afford to live together.

Yeah. My father was a large "C" Communist. It's not going to be the same town very long here. It's changing so rapidly. When somebody buys a shack in a surfing neighborhood for $500,000, they're not nearly as tolerant of the illegal unit next door as the previous owner. So the whole complexion of the town changes. We have to work really hard on our tolerance. It means that maybe you don't have that parking space in front of your house when you come home from work.

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From the June 28-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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