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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Get Downtown With Your Bad Self: Only you can prevent senseless homogenization.

Downtown Unchained

Another myth--that Santa Cruz has lost its funkiness to the mall-chain mentality--bites the dust

By Sarah Phelan

THANKS TO the earthquake, Santa Cruz has seen more than its fair share of changes in the last 13 years, including the reconfiguration of the once sinuous Pacific Garden Mall. But just because the street got straightened out physically doesn't mean we've lost our funky edge.

Judging from the street scene, Santa Cruz is a hip place to be seen. Though many weird and wonderful stores have gone under, others have risen from the ashes, while local favorites have moved into roomier digs. Even most of the chains that have landed downtown seem to fit in better than anyone expected. So why haven't chain stores taken over Pacific Avenue, as many locals once feared?

"Chain stores aren't interested because it's not a super good area for retailers, which is why Macy's and Gottschalks went to 41st Avenue. All of which proves the market decides best," says local commercial Realtor Matt Shelton. "Downtown is a young people's market, and stores that cater for twenty-to-thirty-somethings do well because of UCSC. Annieglass has bucked the trend by succeeding in an area dominated by O'Neill's and Pacific Wave."

Meanwhile, Gravago owner Barbara Horscraft recalls that when she left the mall in 1986, business was bad and the Town Clock end of Pacific Avenue was the seedy side.

"The post-earthquake development brought a fresh look, instead of lots of dinge, and an interesting mix of stores. People should shop downtown, because there's lots to look at on the streets and in the shops," says Horscraft.

Velvet Underground co-owner Lisa Towns recalls how Cinema 9 "sounded too big when it was at planning stage, but now it fits right in. The fear that it would kill other cinemas proved ill-founded--the Nickleodeon is doing better than ever, and the Del Mar renovation is fantastic. We don't look like any other downtown I know."

The dotcom bomb, however, has seriously impacted the local landscape. Eighty percent of office space once occupied by downtown dotcommers now stands empty, leaving a hole in the economy as big as our two remaining post-earthquake pits.

"Currently there's about 35,000 square feet available that was formerly occupied by dotcommers, and typically you get five employees per 1,000 feet, so that's about 70 people who aren't eating a meal downtown once a day, or buying a pair of shoes once a month," says Shelton. "The challenge for downtown's future will be whether big spaces can divide into smaller spaces, and attract smaller tenants, but the spaces are nicely improved."

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From the July 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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