Ten years ago this month, the city of Santa Cruz was given an unusual opportunity for city planning — the Loma Prieta earthquake decimated the downtown. The City bounced back with a Downtown Recovery plan that called for a mix of small, medium and large businesses, and a mix of local, regional and national companies. The City Council is now considering an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance that would regulate ground-level uses in the central business district and its four subdivisions. The proposed ordinance requires that ground-level uses in excess of 16,000 s.f. go through a special permit and public hearing process. The purpose of the ordinance is to ensure a “diversity” of businesses in the CBD. To get a special permit, a business would have to show that 1) it adds a new type of business to the downtown mix; 2) it contributes to an appropriate balance of local, regional, and national businesses; 3) it contributes to a mix of small, medium and large businesses, and 4) it contributes to a balance of traditional and non-traditional businesses. The ordinance presumes that small and medium sized businesses, and local/regional businesses more “effectively diversify” the mix than large, national companies, but this presumption can be rebutted under the ordinance. The ordinance passed the City Council on a unanimous vote in late September, but has to take a second final vote of approval before it becomes law. A number of communities have passed related ordinances that subject large scale projects to a special permit process, and some have gone further by simpy banning outright buildings that exceed a certain cap. Communities like Warrenton, VA require a special permit process for large stores, while Westford, MA and Clermont, FL simply ban stores over the “cap” limit. Communities like Calistoga and Solvang, CA prohibit chain store “cookie cutter” businesses, or limit franchise development. Greenfield, MA requires uses which general more than 500 car trips daily to undergo a “Major Development Review” process. In states like New York, California and Vermont, major developments are required to meet the regulations of state environmental quality reviews. More and more communities are turning to their zoning code to help define what their community will look like in the future. The issue is not stopping growth, because growth is inevitable. The issue, as the Mayor of Northfield, MN told me is: “Not how big you grow, but how you grow big.” Or, as Tom Shaver, the coordinator of the Santa Cruz Action Network explains, the ordinance does not ban chain stores, but simply makes “them explain publicly why they would be good for our community.”
For a copy of the proposed Santa Cruz zoning ordinance, contact sprawl-busters. For more background on the Santa Cruz effort, contact the Santa Cruz Action Network at 831-458-9425.