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SANTA CRUZ >> A historical listing for the Circle Church was denied by the city council Tuesday, clearing a path for perhaps a dozen new homes at the site on Santa Cruz’s Westside. 

The city council voted 6-0 not to list the 61-year-old church as a historical landmark or on the city’s historic building survey. Historic status would have required an environmental impact report for the proposed development and added time and costs. It now will return to the typical design and planning process. 

Developers have proposed homes to be built on the Circle Church site on Errett Circle in Santa Cruz. Church leaders sold the land for $3.3 million in 2017. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local)

The council’s vote upheld the historic preservation commission’s 5-0 vote last month to not list the church as a historic site. A historical evaluation by a professional consultant Page & Turnbull and a peer review by a second consultant also found no historical significance for the site.The proposal took a detour in December when the city council voted 4-3 to send the question of whether the church deserved historical status to the city’s historic preservation commission. 

In 2017, church leaders sold the buildings and land at 111 Errett Circle to a development group called Circle of Friends LLC for $3.3 million. The group wants to demolish the church and develop the circular lot into one of two plans: 

  • 12 single-family homes
  • 10 single-family homes and six townhomes.

The group also wants to include the maximum number of accessory dwelling units, leaders have said. 

The plans have met resistance from several neighbors, who want to keep the church. The building is currently used as a de facto community center, with children’s programs operated by the building’s tenants by permission of the owners. There are also several offices and a tutoring program. There is still a place of worship in the main building as well as a small gym for sports like youth volleyball.

The developers have pledged to keep some public open space in the project.

There is a tutoring center among several offices at the Circle Church on Errett Circle in Santa Cruz. The land is slated for a housing development. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local)

Tuesday, dozens of people spoke for and against the housing proposal. The emotionally-charged public comment lasted more than an hour.

Akua Parker was one of several millenials who urged the city council not to list the church as a historic site.

“We don’t have a dilapidated church crisis. We have a housing crisis,” Parker said. “As someone who grew up playing volleyball in the Circle Church, I understand the sentimental value of the building. But sentimentality is different than historical value. I, along with many others, face the reality of not being able to live in my hometown due to the astronomical cost of housing.”

William Lenz, 17, said he’s moved several times within the community due to the housing crisis. 

“The Circle of Friends housing group and other local voters with their roots in this community are fighting for my future, and the people trying to preserve the church are fighting for their past,” William said.

Hillary Martisius, who lives on Walk Circle near the church, said she thought the place had historical significance. 

An earlier church in the same location was built in 1889. The roads were built in concentric circles around it. That church burned down in 1935. The current church opened in 1959 after the city had leased the site as a public park for decades, according to the historical report.

“It has always had its purpose. It can remain in our community. It can be used for different things, but it doesn’t have to be housing,” Martisius said. “I feel sorry for people who are maybe going to lose on this case. I feel sorry for them, yes. But there are better places to build housing than in that center of our neighborhood. Our neighborhood is precious to us.” 

There are several offices at the Circle Church site on Errett Circle in Santa Cruz. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local)

Barbara Benish, like several others, wanted the church to remain as a de facto community space. 

“What we’re trying to save is not just a building for a particular religious group or a building itself. But what we’re talking about is the site and the place and the community,” Benish said. “It’s been a place for generations for all kinds of learning, activities, athletics, growing, healing spaces and this is what we’re trying to preserve.”

Several councilmembers said they recognized the the land’s significance in the neighborhood and the church’s role in it, but the council had a narrow question to consider Tuesday: whether the building itself was historically significant. 

Councilmembers Cynthia Mathews, Sandy Brown and Mayor Justin Cummings also said that the unique character of the neighborhood warrants study for possible listing of the neighborhood as a designated historic district.

Brown said she wished the church’s former owners had approached the city for a possible sale, but they never did. She said it was a challenging decision, but she had to put her sentimentality aside. Cummings echoed her comments. 

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Councilmember Chris Krohn has told Santa Cruz Local that the decision of whether homes should be built at 111 Errett Circle should be up to the neighbors.

It was a “painful decision,” Krohn said.

“I don’t feel like we can go against the historic preservation commission, given what we have before us right now, given what we’ve been asked,” Krohn said.

Councilmember Cynthia Mathews made the motion to not list the church as a historic site. As part of her motion approved by the council, she echoed what the historic preservation commission called for: 

  • Include a focal point from the ocean through Woodrow Avenue  
  • Keep the circular street pattern
  • Place historical plaques on site

A Circle Church developer, Mark Thomas, said in January that the group plans to keep the circular street pattern and place historical plaques.

However, Thomas objected to the historical preservation committee’s prescription for a “focal point.”

“I thought it was arbitrary and capricious to come up with a design consideration that was not based on the criteria,” Thomas said at the time.

Councilmember Glover was out of town Tuesday, according to the city clerk.

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Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.