Eighty-four apartments and ground-floor retail space are proposed at 1800 Soquel Ave. in Santa Cruz. (Lowney Architecture)

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz planning commissioners on Thursday approved permits for a four-story, 84-unit apartment complex on 1800 Soquel Ave., but a neighborhood group expressed concerns about parking, congestion and safety in an area already busy with drivers, walkers and cyclists.

The decision could be appealed to the Santa Cruz City Council. One planning commissioner said he voted in favor of the project because the area’s housing shortage has forced out many people he knows. 

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Car lots and May’s Sushi Bar & Grill have been on the site of the proposed apartments at Soquel and Hagemann avenues. 

The proposal includes:

  • 42 one-bedroom units at 615 square feet.
  • 42 studios at 432 square feet.
  • 14 of the 84 units are expected to be affordable. Seven units are proposed for “low” income tenants and seven units for “very low” income tenants, as defined by the state.
  • 1,928 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
  • 78 bike parking spaces on the second floor.
  • 84 car parking spaces on the ground floor accessible from an alley behind the building. The alley, often used by neighbors, is expected to be repaved and maintained by the applicant.
  • Rooftop solar panels are anticipated. 

Vince Sosnkowski, a representative of developer 1800 Soquel LLC, said during Thursday’s meeting that the project was intended to be “affordable by design.” 

Sosnkowski said, “Obviously, we have a component of what is required to be low- and very-low income. But we’ve also tried to design something that is reasonably attainable, given this market.”

The planning commissioners voted 4-1 to approve five permits:

  • Nonresidential demolition authorization to demolish an existing commercial building. 
  • Boundary adjustment to merge three parcels.
  • Design.
  • Special use.
  • Density bonus request that involved waivers to development standards, including exceeding height, floor area ratio.

Commissioners Julie Conway, John McKelvey, Michael Polhamous and Pete Kennedy voted in favor and Commissioner Cyndi Dawson opposed it. Commissioners Timerie Gordon and Sean Maxwell were absent.

Polhamus said the area needs more homes.

“We are in a housing crisis. Not just a housing crisis of market-rate apartments but also of affordability, and these things matter,” Polhamous said during Thursday’s meeting. 

“I have seen almost everyone I know and care about move out of this town because they can’t afford to live here, and they can’t find spaces even if they could. Yes, we all want to live in a nice place, but we also want our kids to be able to live here,” Polhamus said.

May’s Sushi Bar & Grill once occupied the main building of 1800 Soquel Ave. in Santa Cruz. Two car lots and an auto detailing shop are now on the site of the proposed apartment complex. (Michael Warren Mott — Santa Cruz Local file)

Safety and parking concerns

About a dozen people spoke at the Sept. 21 meeting. Most said they opposed the project as  submitted and some said they were in favor of it.

Some residents from a group called Concerned Neighbors of Hagemann said an alley behind the proposed project was already busy. Some neighbors were concerned that the alley behind the proposed apartment complex could be its primary entrance.

“We are all able to travel back and forth down that alley with several spots to pull over, which allows a polite neighborly flow of bicycles, walkers, dogs and cars,” said Rena Dubin, during Thursday’s meeting. Dubin made a presentation on behalf of the group.

“This is an effect of doubling the amount of traffic on the alleyway. The one-lane alley can’t handle doubling traffic,” Dubin said. “One neighbor says this plan is going to create a major dangerous throughway adjacent to what is already a very dangerous intersection,” she said.

Drivers often zip by Soquel Avenue at Hagemann Avenue, and it can be dangerous for walkers and cyclists to cross Soquel, some neighbors said. Eighty-four more homes at the corner could exacerbate the problem, they said. 

“What we all agree on, all the neighbors in our group, no matter our other politics, is that this project as it has been presented to you is dangerous. It will increase collisions. These plans will not work in the real world. And we are alarmed about the safety and livability of our county,” Dubin said.  

Some neighbors have expressed fears that the new tenants could contribute to a parking crunch.

The proposal includes 84 parking spaces, or one parking spot per unit, which is more than required. The proposal is within a half-mile of a major transit stop so it could have fewer parking spaces by state law. 

“The great thing about this parking though is that if in the future it is determined that that (could be) better utilized in some other way, it’s relatively easy to convert to retail,” architect Mark Donahue said at the meeting. 

Housing affordability

Some neighbors said the development would increase congestion without necessarily helping housing affordability.

One neighbor said the market-rate rents inevitably would lead to shared rooms, potentially doubling the parking impact on the neighborhood.

“How will 70 market rate rentals help our community?” asked a Mentel Avenue resident, at Thursday’s meeting. “It will not help our teachers and locals to work at the grocery stores, the restaurants and the small business employees,” she said. 

“I understand we need more affordable housing for our residents in Santa Cruz and I support that, but the 1800 Soquel Ave. development consists of 14 low-income and 70 market rate rentals,” she said.

Ryan Meckel, a Santa Cruz YIMBY member, shares a house with two UC Santa Cruz students. He said he thought this project might help him move into a home of his own.

“I would love to have 435 square feet of space to live in,” he said in response to a comment that the small rooms weren’t livable. 

“There are not enough options for people like me in Santa Cruz right now. This is an option that would give people like me options to continue to work and live in Santa Cruz,” Meckel said.

A rendering shows a proposed apartment complex on Soquel and Hagemann avenues in Santa Cruz. (Lowney Architecture)

At Thursday’s meeting, Planning Commissioner Pete Kennedy described how he hoped to see the neighborhood change in the next 50 years.

“I think a little bit of it might have been converted from the hellscape of automobile capitalism that it is now — that’s been held in place by people not allowing any growth or any projects or any new thinking like apartments. That’s why Soquel (Avenue) is so bad today,” said Kennedy.

He said he saw the project as a necessary part of the increased housing density and less reliance on cars that Santa Cruz needs.

“This is a new mentality that’s looking forward, and it’s not stuck in a past where we’re burning fossil fuels 24/7,” he said.

“We like it how it is,” a woman interjected from the audience.

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Clarification: This story has been updated to state that Ryan Meckel shares a home with two others. His living situation was misstated in a previous version of this story.

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Tyler Maldonado holds a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He writes about housing, homelessness and the environment. He lives in Santa Cruz County.