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Downtown farmers market’s move provides challenge to Measure O’s campaign

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Where will the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market be located in a couple of years?

It’s not an innocuous question. The market’s location has become a political football in the increasingly volatile conversation around the siting of a new downtown library.

Football Highlights

That conversation is set to get even knottier.

Within the next week, Lookout has learned, the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Market’s board will vote on whether to move forward on an agreement with the city to relocate the market. The move has been in discussion for years, but the timing of the board vote — just a month before city voters decide on Measure O — is already raising concerns, which are likely to only grow.

Currently, the market sets up on Lot 4 each Wednesday. Lot 4 is a city-owned parking lot along Cedar Street between Cathcart and Lincoln streets. The lot has also become the center of major contention as the group Our Downtown, Our Future put Measure O on the city’s November ballot, aiming two stops a long-planned new downtown library branch to be built on the lot along with new housing and a parking garage. Those proponents have made the downtown market a centerpiece of the argument, saying the market needs to be “preserved” on Lot 4. Meanwhile, as that political debate has increased in volume, Nesh Dhillon, the executive director of SCCFM, which operates the 32-year-old downtown market, has continued to negotiate with the city to find the market a new permanent site .

Dhillon has steered clear of the politics and has been focused on finding a permanent home for the market, which has been on Lot 4 for more than 20 years. He says he’s feeling good about his future.

“I think it’s important for the public to know that no matter what, we’re going to be fine,” he told Lookout on Monday. “We’re going to be downtown. Ideally, we’d be able to operate with a really improved space so that we can deliver more services, but it’s not like we’re going to get displaced.”

In fact, the market is close to signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a good-faith agreement that’s short of a legally binding contract, that would place the market permanently on Lot 7, a block and a half away from its current home . That’s the parcel that runs along Front Street, bordered by Cathcart Street and the parking lot behind New Leaf Community Market at Soquel Avenue. Beyond providing a new location, the vision for the block includes a new kind of community center, complete with a weather-protecting open-air pavilion, infrastructure like restrooms and lighting, places to congregate and eat, and permanent hookups for food trucks to feed downtown workers, residents and visitors.

Nesh Dhillon, director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The farmers market has been working with the city to secure and design a suitable site since 2016, says Dhillon. That’s when the city began planning to develop Lot 4 into a mixed-use library and affordable housing project. County voters approved the massive overhaul and upgrade of the countywide library system that year with $68 million in bond funding via Measure S, and the new downtown library would be one of the final projects funded by it. Overall, the project, which could begin construction as early as next summer, includes a new, 40,000-square-foot library, including a 5,000-square-foot roof deck; 124 units of 100% affordable housing; 243 parking spaces; 258 bicycle parking spaces; and a child care facility.

The MOU is the result of years of back and forth between the city and the farmers market, and Dhillon said he believes the board will vote to move forward with it by the end of the week.

The timing of the signing of the MOU coming more weeks before the election is a coincidence, says Dhillon. It’s the result of years of design and site analysis just now getting the finishing touches.

Measure O’s advocates are less sure.

Measure O would amend the city’s General Plan to require adequate space for the farmers market to operate on Lot 4, and the marketing efforts behind the measure have emphasized keeping the market where it’s been operating for years. Any deal between the city and the farmers market to move to Lot 7 would undermine Yes on O’s messaging to keep both the market and the downtown library where they are now.

Yes on O leader Rick Longinotti said he would like to read the MOU before commenting specifically on the deal.

“The farmers market is too smart to tie themselves down to moving, when in fact my reading on their sentiment is that (Lot 4) is a successful location for them,” he said. “Lot 7 is on Front Street, which has three times the vehicle traffic as Cedar Street does right now. So I doubt very much that the farmers market would box themselves into a corner to have to move when we’re about to vote on something that would allow them to stay.”

Longinotti said he understands why the farmers market remains neutral on the question of Measure O: “They can’t afford to alienate city staff that are working with them on a new location.”

Measure O challenges the current library/housing/parking garage plan on Lot 4, saying it wants the market to stay there, and to add only affordable housing to the block. It opposes a new parking garage and favors renovating the current downtown library at Church and Center streets rather than building a new one.

Dhillon made clear he is not opposed to staying at Lot 4 should Measure O pass and make moving the farmers market more difficult, but said he isn’t sure it’s the right place for a permanent home, especially if a portion or all of the site is used for affordable housing.

“Regardless of whether Measure O passes or not,” he said, “we wanted to finish the process because we know we can sleep at night knowing we’ve got a great location that we can go to at a future date when needed.”

A possible layout of Lot 7 shows three rows of farmers market booths, a row of food trucks and several more food trucks on Cathcart Street, at bottom.

(Via City of Santa Cruz)

A new, expanded, vision of the downtown market

The proposed site on Lot 7 would feature more amenities and is intended to be a permanent home for the farmers market.

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The current parking lot will be scraped, explains Dhillon; in its place will be a flat, open area for farmers market booths. An indoor-outdoor pavilion will shade the market in sunny weather and offer protection from rain during the winter months. Also included in the design: a parklike area along Cathcart Street with picnic tables; permanent hookups for food trucks; and utilities, restrooms and lights, which would allow the market to be open in the evening. On market days, half of Cathcart Street would be activated for food trucks. “It’s similar to what’s happening right now, but much cleaner,” Dhillon said. “There’s design; it’s architectural, as opposed to just setting up in a parking lot.”

Lot 7 ice cream slightly narrower than Lot 4 — a little over 40,000 square feet, compared to 50,000 square feet — but is similar in size when the portion of Cathcart Street is included. The site would operate year-round and use would expand to include special events. There is $1.77 million budgeted for the initial phase, and additional funds will be committed for future financial support as needed.

Going forward

Last week, an outline for the new site and vision was included in an update to the city council agenda, and it will be discussed at the council’s Oct. 25 meetings.

That action followed the submission of a plan to the farmers market board in July. The board reviewed it and provided feedback in August and September.

While long in the works, the actual signing of the MOU will likely spark new political debate.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Justin Cummings said it’s “a little shocking” that the city and farmers market are making an agreement, given the timing of the election and the controversy surrounding the ballot measure. “It has the potential to have some pretty significant impacts,” he said.

He questions the prudence of such a move: “If we move forward with a permanent location for the farmers market on Lot 7 at this point in time, what are the implications if Measure O passes?”

Dhillon steps back from the controversy and puts things in perspective for the valued Santa Cruz institution. “We’re going to be fine,” he said. “You just gotta let the politics play itself out, and then we’ll figure out what we’ll do next.”