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Southern Exposure

[whitespace] Mike Donegan
George Sakkestad

Pigeon Point: Mike Donegan, a new member of the city's Downtown Commission, hopes the South of Cathcart Action Team can help clean up sites like the 'Pigeon Hole of Death.'

Tired of feeling like the neglected stepchild of downtown, the South of Cathcart Action Team gears up to reclaim its streets

By Mary Spicuzza

MIKE DONEGAN throws a suspicious glance over his shoulder as we cross Cathcart Street and continue our southbound trek along Pacific Avenue. Donegan, a member of the City of Santa Cruz's Downtown Commission since January, surveys the scaffolding that wraps the soon-to-be University Town Center project and the empty storefront that was once Cat N Canary. He takes one last glimpse at the north end of the Pacific Avenue Mall, then turns toward our destination, the south-of-Cathcart district.

"We're now entering the dangerous end of the mall," Donegan says sardonically, using his fingers as quotation marks around the word "dangerous." He may be joking, but in the minds of many Santa Cruz residents, Cathcart Street hacks Pacific Avenue into two distinct sections. The north end, which crumbled into ruins after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, now thrives with quaint boutiques, eateries and cafes. Although south-of-Cathcart shop owners seem pleased with their northern neighbors' renaissance, they say they're sick of sitting on the wrong side of the metaphorical tracks.

Getting Malled

DONEGAN, AN employee at the famous south Pacific breakfast institution Zachary's Restaurant, knows all about his south-end neighbors' frustrations. Last month, he organized the South of Cathcart Action Team (SCAT) because of the flood of complaints from the south end of the mall. Nearly 20 south-of-Cathcart business owners and managers flocked to the first meeting, as did local police and City Council members.

Donegan begins our walk-along tour at the north end of the mall. He stops to admire brilliantly colored flowers overflowing from a planter box near the Flatiron building where Front Street and Pacific Avenue come to a point.

"Remember these flowers," he notes. "You won't see them at the other end of the mall."

Flowers, trees and streetscape beautification come up often as key items on the group's wish list, which members compiled at SCAT's crowded second meeting on July 12. Business people lobbied for minor physical improvements, like more frequent sidewalk cleanings and decorative tree lights, as well as more south-end parking, safety lighting and a "stepped-up" police presence. The list expands as Donegan networks with more shop owners.

As I scurry into Bookshop Santa Cruz, taking advantage of the last public restroom until our southward journey reaches the Metro Center, Donegan also mentions his involvement with the new Public Restrooms Task Force. The busy organizer and other volunteers are surveying downtown spots for new temporary and permanent public restrooms. In a hushed voice, Donegan says the task force has also discussed presenting Bookshop owner Neal Coonerty with a plaque to show community appreciation.

"We're thinking about a golden plunger," Donegan confesses.

When asked about the flurry of organizing activity now taking over the south-of-Cathcart area, Donegan says the near-revolutionary furor comes from the shop owners themselves.

At this month's action team meeting, business folks, Downtown Association staff and City Council members packed into Zachary's to address the state of the south end of the mall. Some shop owners described feeling like the neglected stepchild of the north end, while others voiced concerns about longtime problems like the hordes hanging out at hippie corner, drug dealing and vacant businesses.

But most just say they're tired of waiting for the 1991 Downtown Recovery Plan to trickle down and benefit their end of the mall. And the angry fallout following this year's Celebrate Santa Cruz festival shows that simple things like an art, wine and jazz festival can trigger more than a decade of frustration.

SCAT
George Sakkestad

Wheels of Fortune: South-end businesses aim to change people's perceptions that their section of downtown sits on the wrong side of the tracks.

From First Night to the Last Straw

UNDER A cloudless sky at Celebrate Santa Cruz, held the weekend of May 15 and 16, my friend and I munched fried plantains and admired how the beautiful day seemed to flow without a hitch. Craftspeople, artists and musicians flocked downtown in droves, and vendors lining the streets offered an international buffet of food and local wines.

But that was at the north end of the mall.

Meanwhile, businesspeople south of Cathcart Street were fuming. The festival closed Pacific Avenue all the way from Water to Laurel Street but didn't include any events or vendors south of the Metro Center between Elm and Maple streets. Vendors on the 800 block, near Laurel and Maple streets and Birch Lane, faced no nearby parking and less foot traffic than most weekends. Donegan, Michelle Kendoll of Moon Zooom Endangered Clothing and others describe the event as a fiasco, a big party that forgot to invite some of the hosts.

"They felt like the Cinderella of the mall?" I ask.

"Yes, but no Prince Charming came to dance with them," Donegan frowns. "Action had to be taken. Shop owners were outraged, insulted and hurt."

After the event, Peter Eberle, executive director of the Downtown Association, quickly sent an apology letter to south-end businesses. Eberle explained in the letter that although there were no events planned for the block, police recommended keeping the area near Laurel Street closed to traffic for pedestrian safety.

"Looking back, I realize that we were wrong to close the street and should have kept it open to traffic," Eberle wrote. He is now planning south-of-Cathcart events for next year.

Annie Rains, owner of 17-year-old Cognito Clothing, says that she trusts that wine festival woes won't happen again next year. But she quickly adds that the oversight reveals ongoing city neglect.

"I can't believe nobody realized how ignored we were," Rains says.

Rains admits that the south end of the mall has seen hard times, adding that a mix of social problems and relocations of businesses like Pizza My Heart and Alfaro's Bakery have hurt the area. But she says merchants did their part to clean up the south-end act, and want the city to help them take the next steps to fix the district's bad reputation.

"Everybody has told me to move up the mall. But I love this end of the mall, it has character," Rains says. "Still, the tourists stick to the 'Gucci End.'"

Donegan and Rains agree that years of simple oversights have excluded south-of-Cathcart businesses. For example, south-enders say that the First Night parade, which has historically started at Cathcart and headed north, implies that their side of the mall isn't as important as the rest of downtown.

First Night executive director Melodye Serino explains that this year marchers will gather at the Clock Tower and proceed southward until Birch Lane, just one block north of Laurel Street.

Helping a customer sift through a box of glittery tube tops, Rains admits that she hasn't been as active as she could have been in planning events like First Night. But the busy shop owner says that she simply burned out after countless meetings following the 1989 quake.

"We had so many meetings after the earthquake, and we kept hearing the north-side merchants saying, 'Our end, our end,'" Rains says. "I know that end was devastated, but we need to get some attention for this end too."

Redevelopment director Ceil Cirillo says that her agency has spent more than a half-million dollars on projects for the south end of the mall since the city drafted its recovery plan in 1991.

"Some of our limitations are created by property owners and conditions," Cirillo says. "We are focusing a lot of energy in that area." She cites ongoing improvement programs and alley work, as well as a two-year collaboration with business owners to discourage drug dealing in the south-of-Cathcart area.

Cirillo adds that nobody invited her to partake in the recent flurry of south-end activism.

Cast From the Garden

SCAT

WHETHER TALKING with shop owners, City Council members or local shoppers, it seems impossible not to frame downtown discussions with the 1989 earthquake. The quake destroyed one-third of the district's 600 businesses, hitting the north end especially hard and leaving a downtown pockmarked with gaping holes and construction fences. But with the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Loma Prieta, south-of Cathcart business owners say a decade is too long to wait.

At July's SCAT meeting, City Council member Cynthia Mathews told shop owners that the post-quake Downtown Recovery Plan has also worked to their advantage.

"After the earthquake, there was an emphasis on the other side of downtown," Mathews said. "But prequake, the garden mall actually did end at Cathcart." Mathews believes that once the scaffolding comes down and the University Town Center opens, the south end of the mall will soon witness positive changes.

But in 1997, when Barry Swenson first went public with plans for the University Town Center project, south-end folks already said they were tired of waiting for revitalization.

Donegan is urging folks to break from the waiting game and take action. With all of the excitement over the downtown opening of Saturn Cafe, south-end shop owners agree that the district is gearing up to redefine downtown.

"This is the cool end of the mall. We're different than what you can get over the hill," Curiosa owner Jill Pape says. Her funky south-of-Laurel shop offers a slew of tattoo, body piercing and shoe-shopping possibilities, and Pape says she welcomes more unique businesses: "I think after the earthquake Santa Cruz lost some of its soul. The south end needs to put it back."

"Some say that this end just stopped trying, but the turnout at the first meeting sure shows that they haven't stopped," Donegan adds. "Shop owners want recognition that downtown doesn't stop at Cathcart or Laurel anymore."

During this month's SCAT meeting, shopkeepers expressed a commitment to become more involved, but asked for citywide help with ongoing problems.

"I can watch kids buy drugs at the Metro center, shoot up in the alley, then throw up in the gutter, all from my shop window," Streetlight manager Mark Weagant says. "I would really like to see a stronger police presence."

Streetscape

THE SOUTH-OF-Cathcart area was pretty quiet the night Santa Cruz City Council member Keith Sugar and I cruised downtown to investigate south-of-Cathcart horror stories. No grand-theft auto, drug busts or even large hordes hanging out on the south-end street corners. Sugar mentioned that the City Council has made south-end improvements a priority, a sentiment Christopher Krohn expressed in a June letter to south-of-Cathcart business owners.

"There is great concern on the part of the City Council for the social and financial health of this area," Krohn writes. "I am committed, as are other council members, to working closely with 'South-enders' in realizing improvements in the very near future."

Some, including Sugar, question whether flowers and tree lights will bring significant solutions to problems like drug dealing and hanging out. But as Donegan and I cross Cathcart and continue down the mall, stopping at 1015 Pacific Ave., what many south-enders call the "Pigeon Hole of Death," it becomes clear that physical improvements couldn't hurt. A foot-high pile of bird droppings towers behind the locked gate of a closed-down realty office, surrounded by pigeon feathers and shredded coffee cups.

Later, reflecting on the gruesome spot, Donegan explains that, as in any relationship, the city can do little things to show it cares. "God is in the details," he says.

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From the July 21-28, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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