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Just Say No

Lighthouse Field cake
Robert Scheer

Go Ahead, Cake My Day: Bernice Belton, co-chair of the Santa Cruz Action Network, samples a cake/sculpture at the SCAN awards dinner, with its creator, Laurie Brooksflores. The cake depicts "Lighthouse Field as it might have been, but never will be," according to attendee Gary Patton.

SC city politics gets in touch with its progressive roots

By Eric Johnson

BERNICE BELTON HAS A HARD JOB on her hands. As spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Action Network, it's up to her to give voice to the official position of the group's 500-plus membership at a time when local progressives are finding it difficult to speak with one voice.

Two SCAN-supported Santa Cruz City Councilmembers, Celia Scott and Scott Kennedy, have been dueling on the front page of the Santa Cruz County Sentinel. The effort to protect the city's Greenbelt has turned the Bombay property into a battlefield where SCAN members are hurling accusations at longtime allies. And a bigger fight--the redevelopment of the Beach Flats area--looms on the horizon.

Belton wants to make it clear that she is committed to healing whatever rift may be developing in the coalition that has ruled Santa Cruz since 1981. But she is also more than willing to express concern that the men and women whom SCAN helped put in power have taken their eye off the ball.

"We're viewing what we think is a precedent on the part of members of the council to be more concerned with what the developers think and want than with what we feel is necessary," she says. "They've assimilated the philosophy and rationale that goes with development."

Belton, a resident and active citizen of Santa Cruz since 1971, retains the pungent accent and direct manner of her Brooklyn homeland--offset by a halo of white curls and sparkling sense of humor. Sitting around the redwood-slab conference table in SCAN's Seabright Avenue office with co-chair Scott Bugental and staffer Cathy Bisbee, Belton is determined to stay focused on her message. When Bugental points out--for perhaps the third time--that SCAN really just wants to help work things out, Belton interrupts politely.

"Scott," she says, smiling, "I'm not here to make nice.

"We've seen the members of the city council compromise too often and too soon," she says. "We're all wrestling here with a feeling that we can no longer have good faith in the people who we elected to represent our interests. It seems that they are much more inclined to listen to business interests than to listen to us. What we are interested in is preserving our unique way of life in Santa Cruz. And we feel as though we're under assault."

Belton's opinion, which is that of the SCAN steering committee, is widespread. At an Oct 7 public hearing on the Bombay land, more than 20 people took the podium to passionately demand that the council stand firm on protecting the Greenbelt. Several sharply criticized councilmembers whom they seemed to view as sellouts.

In an interview last week, former mayor Bruce Van Allen said he believes the local citizenry is fed up with the direction the city has been headed. Having been part of the original coalition that came together to take over the council in 1981, he is concerned that recent disputes will become a "wedge" that endangers that coalition.

Van Allen does, however, share the concerns of the council's critics. "I have friendships and shared histories with many members of the council, and that allows me to see their actions in good faith," he says. "But I think the majority is a little too caught up in solving problems. And that has led to too many concessions and to giving up principles."

Post-Earthquake Weather

VAN ALLEN BELIEVES the political era that began in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is drawing to a close. Immediately following the earthquake, he recalls, the community was in a panic. Rumors circulated that downtown property owners had met in secret and decided "to level the entire downtown and build some kind of gated, private mall," he says. Meanwhile, business leaders feared that the progressive council "was going to turn Pacific Avenue into a giant park so they could play their bongo drums."

Instead, the city's leaders formed the Vision Santa Cruz board, made up of citizens, elected officials, business leaders and property owners. The spirit of compromise was so strong--and the perceived need for economic development so profound--that the formerly combative council gave business interests a majority of seats at the bargaining table.

"From the get-go, it was recognized that we were in a new era, and we were going to have to change our thinking about development," Van Allen says.

The progressive councilmembers were as desperate for money as business owners because the social programs they had enacted were threatened. Van Allen recalls that when he first joined the council in 1979, the city spent $50,000 on social programs. When he left five years later, that number had jumped to $1 million.

Add to that another urgent need--again generated by the progressive community. In order to prevent suburbanization from destroying the city's character, residents had called for the establishment of a Greenbelt. They found out that the only way to ensure that land remained undeveloped was to buy it.

Meanwhile, the earthquake was not the only disaster to strike local government. The tax revolt that fueled Proposition 13 had severely cut into the city's main source of revenue, thus making sales tax-generating businesses more attractive.

And so, to pay for the two-pronged progressive agenda--social justice and protection of the environment--the radical city council, often led by the celebrated socialist/feminist Mike Rotkin, became a champion of economic development.

Downtown was rebuilt, and then the progressive council threw its support behind Costco, Long's Drug, Terrace Point and Gateway Plaza. Citizen opposition mounted and multiplied with each successive city development.

"What I'm seeing right now is people saying 'enough is enough,' " Van Allen says. "The political culture that accepted the post-earthquake development is no longer willing to compromise. Before the earthquake, Santa Cruz had a history of protecting its values by just saying no. No to oil derricks off the coast, no to a convention center at Lighthouse Field, no to development on the North Coast.

"It may sound irresponsible from the standpoint of government administration," he adds, "but sometimes simply opposing things is a good strategy. And for any political leader to say 'trust me on this one' is an error of leadership."

Disappearing Trust Fund

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE not to see the latest skirmish in the progressive-vs.- progressive battle as a family squabble based on a misunderstanding. Following the contentious public hearing last month, the council voted 6-1 to allow the Bombay housing development proposal to move into the zoning process.

Listening to the outcry that followed, one would assume the council had approved the development--25 houses slated for Greenbelt lands off Highway 1 and Western Drive. In several interviews last week with the council's critics, all of whom are politically savvy insiders, it was clear that they believed the council has decided to sacrifice the Bombay lands.

The council, meanwhile, is trying to buy the land in order to protect it. The two members who have come under the sharpest criticism, Mike Rotkin and Scott Kennedy, insist that they sincerely mean to find the $3.5 million necessary to put the land under the stewardship of the Santa Cruz Land Trust.

Kennedy, who was the primary mover behind the Arana Gulch Greenbelt purchase, introduced the motion to find the money. Rotkin says he supports dipping into the general fund for about $1 million toward the purchase price, and both are on a committee to write a parcel tax referendum to put before voters. They also support a state bond that was introduced in the state Assembly by Fred Keeley.

Rotkin says councilmembers had a good reason for allowing the proposal to move through the zoning process at the same time that they look for money to buy the land: "If we hadn't, we would have been sued for reverse condemnation, and we would have lost," he says.

"Reverse condemnation" has become a serious issue for municipalities that use zoning laws to control growth. Following a 1987 Supreme Court decision, landowners were given broad powers to sue cities that try to block developments by refusing to allow building to take place, or by just stalling the process.

While he stops short of saying "just trust me," Rotkin, a three-time mayor and former SCAN board member, clearly wishes his critics would at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I find it ironic that, as a socialist, I have to lecture people about the legal requirements of property rights," he says. "I'm real concerned that there are people on both sides who want to split apart this coalition that I've spent my political life in this town trying to forge."

Celia Scott, the one councilmember to vote against the Bombay proposal, does not challenge Rotkin's or Kennedy's version of events. Discussions about the minutiae of how the deal will be funded reveal only slight differences between the three colleagues.

"I like to assume that what people are doing is a good-faith effort," Scott says. "It doesn't do any good to get cynical if you really want to make it happen. The only concern I have is whether or not giving a nod to this other arrangement may make it more difficult to purchase the land."

But a deeper philosophic dispute has been revealed of late. Scott, who is likely to be voted in as mayor next week, has stood alone on several recent development votes, including Gateway Plaza--now under construction on the corner of highways 1 and 9. Having just returned from a trip to Detroit, where she grew up, Scott says her determination to prevent big-box stores and chains from destroying the soul of her adopted home was strengthened.

Scott recognizes that this determination--which led to Kennedy's aborted challenge to her mayoral candidacy--has put her at odds with the rest of the council. "I think the stress we're all feeling now is not just a matter of a difference of opinion between individuals," she says.

That's likely to get worse before it gets better, because a bigger battle may be brewing over the development of the Beach Flats area. The current plan--supported by Rotkin, Kennedy and others--calls for a 250-room hotel and convention center, expansion of the Boardwalk, a possible two-story parking garage, and up to 200 units of affordable housing. To accomplish this major redevelopment, the current neighborhood--mostly made up of rundown, overcrowded rental units occupied primarily by Latinos--would be razed.

Rotkin argues convincingly that the plan was hatched primarily to provide better housing for the neighborhood. But he is clearly also interested in the tax-bucks and jobs.

SCAN's Scott Bugental says his group has been focusing much of its energy lately on the beach area development. "Once the doors open to redevelopment, if we're not careful, it could lead to wholesale gentrification," he says.

Bernice Belton pointedly questions whether the hotel development will provide high-paying jobs and whether the new housing "will force these people to be separated from each other as a neighborhood."

As mayor, Scott--who last Friday was given SCAN's "Drawing the Line" award--will be in a position to put up the fight to see that it happens. "We've been very fortunate to have avoided the trends that could transform Santa Cruz into just another outpost of the national economic giants," she says. "The global economy has the power to do in all of our efforts. We now have to think just as creatively as we can. We have to rededicate ourselves to maintaining social justice and environmental justice in our community, in the face of massive external pressures.

"Santa Cruz has been good at this for the past 20 years," mayor-to-be Scott points out. "I think we're just up against it now. We're in a process of redefining what it means to be progressive. "

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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