Weeds, rubble-filled basements and "No Trespassing" signs greet visitors to downtown Santa Cruz 18 months after the San Francisco Bay-area earthquake devastated the historic district.
Catastrophe is nothing new for this seaside community that has a 200-year history of rebuilding after destruction by fire, flood and seismic fault. But as summer tourist season nears, many are disappointed with the pace of this modern-day recovery."For people who are into construction, the downtown is going to be a fun place to visit and watch for a couple of years," said Redevelopment Director Ceil Cirrillo. "Otherwise, it's not going to be a fun summer."
Even next summer won't see the Pacific Garden Mall back to its old self. But city officials say that's the very reason rebuilding Santa Cruz' commercial center is taking so long; city and business leaders started from scratch, holding hearings and hiring the ROMA Design Group to write a redevelopment plan that reinvents downtown.
In April, the City Council adopted the "downtown recovery plan" that calls for wider sidewalks for cafe seating, retooling retail space and traffic patterns and even changing building heights so more sun streams in. The inch-thick draft plan that replaces the 20-year-old mall design goes into great detail - from bicycle paths to riverside views - with a goal of creating a "pedestrian-oriented" main street.
"Redoing the downtown is something that was going to have to happen anyway, this earthquake just speeded things along," said John Livingston, who is spending $2.5 million to replace his destroyed Logos bookstore.
Livingston, on the mall since 1973, was the first business to get reconstruction plans approved by the city and crews already are on site digging. But several other businesses are locked up in lawsuits, financing troubles, debate over historic status and "wait-and-see" attitudes by some property owners, according to Livingston.
Now, the architectural character might be described as early disaster.
Mall visitors are greeted by a "Customers Welcome" banner, but they have to sidestep fences, sawhorses, "No Trespassing" and "Hard Hat" signs and other minor obstacles to get to stores and businesses.
More than 30 businesses remain inside five huge tents, called Phoenix Pavilions, where they moved during reconstruction. Two other tents folded this past year after five businesses returned to original locations and 12 others moved to rebuilt or repaired mall buildings, according to the city.
Along Pacific Avenue, some yellow police lines still hang limply, a reminder of the Oct. 17, 1989, evening the quake hit the town of 49,000 residents. It destroyed 23 buildings and damaged 17 in the 54-building district.
Many of the fallen Victorian structures were built after an 1894 fire destroyed much of downtown, which lies in a flood plain - the cause of several other natural disasters. Heavy winter rains washed out the first Mission Santa Cruz settlement in 1791.