After a 1989 earthquake destroyed virtually all of its central business district, the city of Santa Cruz, California adopted the Downtown Recovery Plan (DRP), a comprehensive policy for rebuilding the downtown in accordance with several community goals. A decade later, many of these objectives have been met. Downtown Santa Cruz is a healthy, pedestrian-oriented mix of commercial, residential, and public uses. The area reflects the community’s distinct style and features numerous independent retailers offering unique goods and services.
Events last year, however, led the community to revisit the DRP. Borders Books announced plans to open a 23,000 square foot store, sparking a firestorm of opposition from residents who feared the store would harm locally owned businesses and erode the town’s character. Although the Borders store was ultimately approved, opening in June of this year, the controversy led the city to consider whether revisions to the DRP were needed to preserve its original mission in light of changing circumstances.
In late 1999, the city adopted a temporary ordinance restricting stores over 16,000 square feet. Much of this year was spent studying the issue. In October, the City Council voted unanimously to enact permanent revisions to the DRP.
The amending ordinance states, “The continued establishment of large square footage retail businesses in the Downtown, if not monitored and regulated, may frustrate the Downtown Recover Plan goal of establishing and maintaining a diverse retail base with a ‘unique retailing personality’. . .”
Under the law, new retail stores over 16,000 square feet must obtain a special permit from the City Council. Only stores that add to a balanced and diverse mix of downtown businesses are allowed.
Specifically, the new store must demonstrate that it 1) adds a desired type of business, 2) contributes to an “appropriate balance of local or non-local businesses,” and 3) contributes to an “appropriate balance of small, medium and large-sized businesses.” In addition to enhancing the overall diversity of the downtown business district, the new store must be a “good neighbor” and contribute to community life by becoming a member of a business or neighborhood organization, hiring local residents whenever possible, and participating in festivals and other events.
The ordinance favors maintaining the community’s authenticity and unique retail character, and presumes local businesses are more likely to accomplish this. Other guidelines for granting permits include reducing the amount of profit that leaks out of the city and encouraging local investment and employment in the downtown.