a rendering of 130 Center St. proposed housing in Santa Cruz

A six-story apartment building planned for 130 Center St. across from Depot Park in Santa Cruz was reaffirmed Tuesday by the Santa Cruz City Council. (Swenson)

SANTA CRUZ >> The Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday unanimously reaffirmed a plan to build a six-story, 233-unit apartment complex on Center Street across from Depot Park. The city’s planning commission approved the project in October. The city council weighed in because a group appealed the decision.

The site now has an auto body shop and a Hertz rental car shop. Swenson, a San Jose-based developer, has named the project Calypso. 

The plan calls for:

  • 233 studios from 295 to 400 square feet. 
  • 209 parking spaces in an underground and ground-floor garage
  • Two ground-floor shops that could sell food
  • A roof deck

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The project qualifies for a density bonus, which allows the building to be higher, have shorter setbacks from the street and provide fewer parking spaces than city rules would otherwise permit. 

To gain expedited approval under state law SB 35, the project originally planned to offer 31 units below market rate for “very low-income” households, based on area median income. 

  • The area median income in 2021 in Santa Cruz County was $111,900. “Very-low income” means an income of $69,500or less for a family of four. 
  • State requirements call for the city of Santa Cruz to permit an additional 180 “very low income” units by the end of 2023.

During a planning commission meeting in October, Swenson representatives pledged to provide four additional units for “very low income” households, for a total of 35 affordable units, if the project was approved without appeal. Tuesday, Swenson development project manager Jessie Bristow said Swenson renewed the pledge despite the appeal. 

Resident advocacy group Santa Cruz Tomorrow appealed the project in November. It said there was insufficient traffic analysis and possible soil contamination below the site. 

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Santa Cruz Tomorrow representative Gillian Greensite said the project could increase traffic on Laurel, California, and Bay streets.

Greensite also cited the Local Coastal Program, which states that 50% of new development must be two or more bedrooms. City staff said the ordinance does not apply to the Center Street site. 

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Residents weigh in

Rafa Sonnenfeld, director of legal advocacy at YIMBY Law, said that because of state housing laws, “the city doesn’t really have a choice” to approve the appeal.

Proponents of the project urged the city council to reject the appeal. The project’s supporters included six UC Santa Cruz students who said the project would help address Santa Cruz’s lack of student housing.

“The cheap and abundant housing opportunities many former slugs — now current Santa Cruz residents — were afforded are no longer available to us,” said Zennon Ulyate-Crow, a UCSC student and president of the Student Housing Coalition. “Our coalition views 130 Center St. as a step in the right direction when it comes to restoring and expanding access to opportunity to live and gain an education here.”

Chris Bordner, the owner of an auto body shop at the proposed project site, supported the appeal and said the project could worsen local traffic issues. “It is gridlocked on Front Street, Pacific Avenue, Center Street and Washington all leading from Laurel,” he said. “My concern is, and I’ve been concerned for some time, about fire and being able to access those areas in the event of an emergency.”

Resident Ron Pomerantz echoed traffic concerns and said the developer’s offer of four additional affordable units amounted to a “last minute bribe.”  

Developer and council responses

Multiple council members echoed community concerns about congestion, but said they were not a sufficient reason to block the development. “I understand traffic concerns. I also live near the development,” said Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson. “I did find most compelling the young adults in our community who are really urging us to think differently and to be proactive about building all kinds of housing.”

Traffic issues are “not going to go away, whether we build a new apartment complex or not,” said Councilmember Justin Cummings. “But I do think that the concerns that were raised are valid, and my hope is that we can address some of these issues moving forward.”

Bristow, the development project manager at Swenson, said the company plans to propose more developments in the future. Bristow said appeals from the community are time-consuming and costly.

“Are we going to hit this roadblock every time? Is Santa Cruz Tomorrow going to appeal every project? Do they have the right?” he said. “It can be a little frustrating.”

Councilmember Sandy Brown said community groups “should have the right to make these kinds of appeals.” She added that she does not believe the appeal’s request for further traffic study is warranted. “I believe that if we were to conduct such a study, it would not change the outcome,” she said.

Contributing reporter | + posts

Jesse Kathan is an environmental journalist based in Sacramento and a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz's science communications program. Kathan has contributed to the Mercury News, Monterey County Weekly and KSQD-FM