Business owner Karl Heiman thinks signs like these send the wrong message. (Chip Scheuer)

Even before Santa Cruz's Public Works Department temporarily stymied the debate about turning Pacific Avenue into a two-way street—decreeing that public safely won't allow it—some locals had strong ideas on how to re-engineer the business district's main artery.

“My goal is to make it so that people can make it from one end of the street to the other,” says Caffé Pergolesi owner Karl Heiman, who serves on the Downtown Association board, the city’s Downtown Commission and Think Local First. “I don’t care if it’s two-way. I don’t care if it’s one-way. I just want to make it easier for people to get through town.”

The current arrangement—a unique setup in which, essentially, two one-way streets aim at each other for a four-block stretch of the avenue and converge—has been around since shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake; it was a compromise between people seeking to retain what was then known as the Pacific Garden Mall and those who wanted a normal two-way street. Some local activists have clamored for the return of the pedestrian mall ever since.

Next Tuesday, Nov. 29, the city council will hold a study session prompted by retail expert Bob Gibbs, who came to Santa Cruz in September and said that turning Pacific Avenue into a two-way street would work wonders for the city. Gibbs said the area's numerous “Do Not Enter” signs send a mixed message to curious visitors—a little like leaving on a porch light and locking the front door. Normal two-way traffic on the street, Gibbs said, could stimulate spending by more than 20 percent. That, he pointed out, would likely help fill the street’s retail vacancies.

“You’re kind of the worst of both worlds,” Gibbs told council. “You don’t have the convenience for pedestrians, and you don’t have the convenience for cars.”

At its Tuesday meeting, the council will consider three ideas about how planners might proactively redesign Pacific Avenue—instead of waiting for the next earthquake.


One Way All the Way

This idea hasn’t gotten as much press as a pedestrian mall or two-way option. But Public Works has done some preliminary study on the idea. According to this proposal, all the blocks north of Cathcart might be streamlined in one direction. That could prove easier than removing parking spots to make room for a two-way street, and still make it smoother for drivers to get where they’re going.

Chris Schneiter, assistant director of public works, says more details will come out at the Gibbs study session when city staff will field questions from the council. “Some of the information didn’t come out because they got tabled,” he says.

Matthew Thompson, a Santa Cruz architect who helped bring Gibbs to town and supports a two-way option, opposes the one-way plan, warning that one-way streets increase traffic speeds. That could send traffic flying down Pacific Avenue too fast for them to take in the shops and boutiques.

Mayor Ryan Coonerty, who seems to be leaning toward the one-way idea, asked Gibbs about it in September. “It would be an improvement,” Gibbs replied, noting that anything would be better than the current set-up. “It’s the only main street I’ve been on where you can’t drive the entire length of the street without having to stop and circle back around again.”


Two-Way Traffic

The question for any two-way proposal is just how many parking spots would need to come out to make room. As is, according to Public Works, there wouldn’t be enough room for fire engines and delivery trucks to compete with oncoming traffic. Boris Dramov of ROMA Design helped reshape both Pacific Avenue and the Third Street Promenade, a much-celebrated pedestrian mall in Santa Monica. He says Pacific would have to sacrifice a lot of parking in order to make room for a two-way street. “I think that would be difficult,” he says. “I don’t think you can do it without eliminating parking on one side.”

Despite the the Public Works pronouncement, Heiman estimates the street would be wide enough if the city took out a couple of spots around tight corners. Architect Thompson agrees.

Larry Pearson, owner of the Pacific Cookie Company, who strongly supported a two-way option, is no longer convinced.  He would support eliminating a few parking spots at tight intersections and narrow straightaways—even the two spots in front of his Pacific storefront. But he says that might not be enough. “If you had to take out parking along the whole street, I don’t think it would have much support,” says Pearson. “As a matter of fact, I would have difficulty with it.”

According to Thompson, the appeal for a two-way street is two-fold. It would make the business district more navigable and also increase the visibility of storefronts to passing traffic. “If you can follow your nose, you enjoy your time more in a city because you’re not nervous about getting lost,” he says. “You don’t want people getting lost. You want them looking at shop windows, and we can do that.”

Gibbs has said that Pacific Avenue’s traffic is one of the most glaring needs downtown. But he also says there is a tremendous parking deficiency, and that each on-street stall generates $200,000 for businesses each year.


Return of the Pacific Garden Mall

Pedestrian malls can be fickle. There were once as many as 250 pedestrian malls in the country, and today experts say about six have thrived—not exactly a strong track record.

Councilmember Tony Madrigal has said pedestrian mall would be worth looking into. Gibbs warned that a pedestrian mall needs one million square feet of retail space in order to be successful—much more than what’s available downtown.

Schneiter says the city council has never asked staff to look into the idea during his 24 years at the city.

Richard Foy, who works in Colorado for the architectural design company Stantec, helped design Boulder's Pearl Street Mall—a gold standard for pedestrian malls in the United States. He says Santa Cruz has a number of elements that typically make them work: a university, good weather, natural beauty and people who love the outdoors. The north-south layout of the street, he says, equally distributes sunlight between the east and west sides of the street over the course of a day.

Still, he notes that Santa Cruz presents some unique problems. “You have to have more than adequate parking,” Foy says, pointing out that adequate parking is already a problem in Santa Cruz. Another barrier is that Downtown’s linear layout has residences to the west and a river to the east. It would be hard—if not impossible—to position a Pacific Avenue pedestrian mall in the middle of a bustling grid of shops like Boulder. And certain intersections would have to close to traffic because some cross streets don’t go through. If the mall were a little closer to university, that wouldn’t hurt either. “They’re differences,” Foy says, “not insurmountable.”

Another barrier is that a true pedestrian mall would require a significant investment, Foy says. Pearl Street is laid with a brick walkway, has stages for entertainment, and is designed with a “contemporary classic look,” he says. He believes that if Public Works just closed off the street to traffic and called it good, that could leave Pacific Avenue looking like a ghost town.

Micah Posner of People Power proposed a Sunday trial run of a pedestrian mall last month, but he says he doesn’t know if the group will pursue the idea now that the Downtown Association has temporarily withdrawn its proposal for two-way traffic.

ROMA Design's Dramov says a trial run would be the only way to give a pedestrian mall a shot—test the waters and see if people can adapt to a few car-free downtown blocks. “Pedestrian malls haven’t been easy to make work anywhere,” he says.