The New Pacific Garden Mall

Seems like so long ago since we had the first version of Pacific Garden Mall, an experiment in urban planning and design along Pacific Avenue from Water Street to Cathcart Street. “The Mall” was a leafy, eccentrically designed pedestrian oasis and defacto public square, with the street itself snaking through downtown like the San Lorenzo river under a canopy of trees, creating an urban oasis in the heart of the city. It was a place to see and be seen, back when local people actually hung out downtown.

The earthquake destroyed many of the buildings downtown and, given that the area needed infrastructure upgrades, the city had to decide whether to rebuild the Mall as it was, or to go in another direction. During the process of public input known as “Vision Santa Cruz”, those who wanted to restore the Mall were a distinct minority. When locals remember the Mall today, many still look back on a place that was successful in what it was designed to do: bring people together. “People used it,” said Janet Pollock, a landscaper. “It was a pleasant, attractive place to be. People were there all the time. We would go over for lunch, and we had a hard time making it back to work because we’d run into so many people. It was a very social environment.”

Fast Forward to 2014

The current version of Pacific Avenue is again struggling with what seems to be systemic issues. Vacant storefronts are rising. The community has expressed valid concern for public safety downtown and specifically along Pacific Avenue, which impacts business for the downtown merchants. And the downtown merchants fight a constant battle with street performers and artists who compete with their customers for sidewalk space. It’s a delicate balance to “clean up” downtown, to be able to improve public safety while retaining a certain flair and character that is unique to the culture of Santa Cruz. I think we’ve already shown an ability to do that on a local scale, and we have already created a vibrant and successful micro “pedestrian mall” that is recognized as one of the best of it’s kind in the country, and is a jewel and treasure of the downtown scene.

I’m talking about the weekly Downtown Farmers Market of course. It’s a huge success. At one time not so long ago, it struggled a bit with it’s identity. Was it just a farmers market? Or was it much more than that? It was a community meeting space that happened to be a kick ass farmers market. And when the group that runs the market saw the vision and what could happen here, once they were able to convince the city to expand their space into the adjacent lot and evict the drum circle, once they created the food court and expanded the kinds of vendors to other prepared foods, they blew up! Now, everyone that lives downtown goes to the market on Wednesdays. It’s the place to be. It’s not just to shop. It’s a place to meander, to taste stuff, to people watch. It’s completely safe. It’s full of happy people and food. You cannot go to the Wednesday market and not feel better after you leave. It brings hundreds if not thousands of local people to downtown every Wednesday afternoon.

So we’ve already shown an ability to “build it and they will come”. The farmers market is about one city block. It’s a micro “pedestrian mall” because it’s all foot traffic and open booth vendors. It’s a huge success BECAUSE it’s a walking venue, not in spite of it.

4 blocks. Locust to Cathcart. Take a leap of faith. (to be continued….)


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