After the fires, how do we choose to live?

We’re at the cusp of historic change in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco and north of Santa Cruz. For over a century two historic trends have merged to create the CZU August Lightning fires, destroying many homes and properties.

For the past one hundred years, residents of the Bay Area and elsewhere have built summer homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, there to enjoy cool temperatures and vast panoramic vistas. Over the years, many of those summer cabins have been upgraded to year round residences, most of them on narrow winding roads through the forest, subject to washouts, landslides, and fire.

Over the same period, fire suppression, largely to protect the increasing number of homes, has increased fuel loads in the forest, as small, patchy fires that have historically removed undergrowth and grasses have been curtailed and largely eliminated.

The August 15 thunderstorm set hundreds of small fires throughout the area, that caught hold in the abundant fuels accumulated over decades. They rapidly merged into the large fire area now being brought under control by 1600+ firefighters and their large and complex agency administrations.

We’ve come to this point over a century of thoughtless, unplanned growth and development, spreading fragile homes and businesses into wild areas without considering the natural processes at work in the non-human world. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and at this point a lesson not to be ignored.

Nevertheless, thoughts and plans are turning to “repopulation,” allowing home and business owners to return to assess the damage to their properties, including in many cases complete loss. Local government officials are already reassuring property owners that assistance for rebuilding will be readily available and the skids will be amply greased to ease the permitting process.

This is the point where a pause and a good rethink would be in order, before the rush to return to the status quo. Is it smart government policy to encourage property owners to rebuild their destroyed buildings in areas that will remain fire prone and would require extensive clearing, road building and fire protection into the future?

Isn’t this a good opportunity to reassess the effects of historic human population growth and infrastructure development in wild lands?

Isn’t now the perfect time to look to the future and consider the human world that we have built and the effects the way we live have on the natural world that surrounds us and on which we ultimately depend?

Wouldn’t it be better, for all life, for humans to live cooperatively, humbly and respectfully with natural processes, such as drought, precipitation, temperature… and fire, that govern the non-human world, and increasingly, as we have recently learned, the human world as well?

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” ― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Covid and fires and smoke, Oh My!

As if things aren’t strange enough in Covid World these days, now we have evacuations from forest fires in the mountains to the north.

We’re not threatened with fire or evacuation here, but we are getting smoke and ash fall now and then, not enough to curtail our daily walks, but noticeable.

The fires are from a late night thunderstorm that rattled in from the ocean and stabbed the forests with thousands of lightning bolts, starting dozens of fires fed by dense undergrowth resulting from decades of fire suppression.

If it were only the forests that burned, it would be normal for this part of the world. But, of course, humans have built their homes, businesses and towns within or adjacent to the forest and thus subject to to the fires that keep the forest healthy.

I suspect, or maybe it’s just hope, that some time from now this weird year will result in changes in the way local humans spread themselves about the landscape and interact with the natural world. Maybe we’ll learn that we can’t live in high density tower blocks, packed cheek by jowl in downtown canyons of glass and concrete. Perhaps we are learning that it’s not a good idea to build flammable homes in the flammable forests.

It would be good if we humans could learn from these hard lessons of disease and fire about how to live in the natural world, without destroying it or being destroyed by it.

Stranger things have happened!

We Rally for the Library!

On June 18, 2020 over 60 supporters rallied in support of remodeling, renovating and rebuilding the Santa Cruz Downtown Branch Library in it’s present location in the downtown Civic Center.

FLOOD THE CITY COUNCIL – citycouncil@cityofsantacruz.comwith your emails imploring them not to approve the Mixed-Use project and instead vote to pursue the Jayson Architecture reconstruction proposal of the downtown library — because it will cost the City less, planning can be implemented immediately, and it will provide a modernized and beautiful library for everyone! Send your email no later than June 18 in order to be most effective.

Click HERE to learn more about Santa Cruz City Council plans to abandon (and probably demolish) the historic Downtown Branch Library in the Civic Center and build a new library in the ground floor of a six story parking garage.

Cynthia Mathews’ art of the backdoor deal

In a follow-up on yesterday’s post on the Santa Cruz Downtown Library fiasco, take a read of Stephen Kessler’s  amazing editorial in today’s Santa Cruz Sentinel, calling out ex-mayor and persistent politico Cynthia Mathews on her behind the scenes machinations to drum up support for the faltering library-in-a-parking-and-affordable-housing project:

Cynthia Mathews’ art of the backdoor deal

“Mathews owes the community an apology for her sleazy backroom behavior and should immediately resign her seat on the city council.”

Santa Cruz Sentinel
June 17, 2020

https://www.santacruzsentinel.com/2020/06/17/stephen-kessler-councilwoman-makes-unethical-request/

By Stephen Kessler

As you know if you’ve been following the epic saga of the Taj Garage—the proposed mixed-use parking-library (and belatedly added “affordable housing”) complex on Lot 4 in downtown Santa Cruz—Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews, due to her conflict of interest as an owner of property adjacent to the site, is recused from voting on this item that will soon be before the council.

This hasn’t kept Mathews from launching, directing and sustaining an all-out lobbying campaign to build her project in the face of significant popular opposition. How she reconciles or rationalizes this ethical, if not legal, contradiction may be her personal business, but as the city’s most veteran and powerful elected official, pretty much anything and everything she does has public and political implications.

That’s why I’ve been watching with astonishment and dismay the gross corruption of the city’s decision-making process by her behind-the-scenes machinations. Awhile ago she founded a front organization called Downtown Forward which recruited an impressive assortment of “stakeholders” to publicly support the Taj Garage as the only way for the city to gain a “21st-century library,” which is the bait for public approval of an otherwise unsightly and unneeded garage.

As far as I know, Downtown Forward has done nothing but put up a very slick and expensive website since its unveiling at a “press conference” more than a year ago—a press conference at which no questions were taken and where Mathews, the group’s primary organizer, never took the microphone. She has been hard at work since then throwing her political weight around attempting to cajole a critical mass of local citizens and businesspeople to get with her program and vocally advocate for her mixed-use garage.

With the deadline approaching for the city council’s decision on this issue, the recused and conflicted councilwoman’s lobbying campaign has gone into overdrive as public opinion appears to be trending against her desired outcome. She recently sent an email to the executive director of the Downtown Association, a group of businesses distinct from the chamber of commerce, asking for what she calls in her subject line “A big favor.”

In her email, sent from her personal not her city council address, Mathews writes, “…we are facing an imminent decision point for the DT library/housing/parking project and we would really appreciate getting a letter from the DTA affirming its support… Justin [SC Mayor Justin Cummings] is the key.” Who exactly the plural “we” refers to is unclear. Is it the royal “we,” the council “we”—or should it have been more truthfully the singular Mathews “I”? The blatant if indirect attempt to manipulate the mayor’s vote is one of the creepiest things about this troubling message.

Regardless of where it was sent from, can anyone in this town think of Mathews as anything but its most shrewd and influential politician? Can any businessperson openly oppose her without wondering how it might affect future council decisions on other matters? If former council members Drew Glover and Chris Krohn could be recalled for openly offensive behavior, surely Mathews’ shameless and shadowy arm-twisting is a far more serious breach of public trust. The “favor” President Trump requested of the president of Ukraine was enough to get him impeached. No doubt Mathews would declare, as the president did, “no quid pro quo,” but appearances matter.

In her email to the DTA, Mathews goes on to offer talking points to its members for letters they should write to the council. Why she doesn’t just offer to compose the letters herself and have them sign under her words—a tactic she has been known to deploy in the past—you’ll have to ask her. But if this is not corruption, I don’t know what is. It may not be a smoking gun, but it’s a stinking pile of political excrement.

Mathews owes the community an apology for her sleazy backroom behavior and should immediately resign her seat on the city council.

Stephen Kessler’s column runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

On the Fate of Public Libraries and Democracy

Well, they did it!

The Downtown Library Council Subcommittee hauled off and voted unanimously to recommend that the City build a new library in the ground floor of a six story parking garage and abandon the library’s historic site in the Civic Center.

Oh, wait, you may not know what this is all about.

In 2016, Santa Cruz voted in Measure S, a county-wide property tax measure to raise funds to repair, restore and upgrade the County’s badly deteriorated library buildings after decades of deferred maintenance. Among the buildings in need of repair are the Downtown Branch, the flagship of the library system, sailing proudly in the Civic Center, next door to City Hall, the City Auditorium and other historic buildings.

STC-L-GIBSON-COL-0616-01

When Measure S was ballyhooed by the city fathers and mothers, they knew perfectly well that the funds garnered would be insufficient to complete all the work needed for all of the library branch buildings. But they pressed on regardless, not telling the people about this minor financial detail, sure in the knowledge that once approved, additional funds could be “leveraged” to complete the tasks at hand.

To overcome this fiscal failing, the City (mis)Manager dug into his bag of old ideas and pulled out… a parking garage! He suggested, without smirking, very much, that the city could save money and build a bigger Downtown Branch library in the ground floor of a five to six story parking garage, propping up the moribund parking project like a brick underneath the wobbly corner of a book case.

Parking garage 2

City staff fueled the spark of the idea by pouring gallons of library eye candy on the gullible public, images of huge, modernistic book boutiques in major cities around the world excruciatingly morphed into “multi use” structures, such as apartment buildings, multi-modal transportation emporia and shopping malls, with far more glass, glitz and glamor than books..

The Downtown Library Advisory Committee, formed in December 2016 to “help with the design of a new library,” swallowed it all, recommending that the City Council approve the new “21st Century” library in the ground floor of a yet to be designed parking garage.

As often happens, many people who pay attention took exception to this behind closed doors, bureaucratic bait and switch. A groundswell of opposition to the ugly car-centric edifice arose (see Public Libraries Parking Garages and the Future of Bad Taste), creating consternation in the ivy-covered halls of local government. Never to pause in the face of public disapproval of their favorite plans, City Staff rooted around in their bag of tricks and pulled out their favorite ploy: if the public doesn’t like what you offer, give them what they want.

With a wave of their bureaucratic magic wand, the library in a garage was magically transformed into a library plus affordable housing in a parking garage. Shazzam! Who could object to affordable housing?

City staff and some City Council members, including the member who was recused from voting on the project, who shall remain nameless (her initials are C.M.), quickly mobilized a cadre of downtown influencers to support the so-called mixed use project, releasing an epic flood of disinformation, misdirection and bald-faced lies about the project, how much it would cost, how tall it would be and how many, if any, truly affordable apartments would be included.

To cut to the chase, after nearly four years of political jiggery-pokery, and yet another City Council committee process, the decision, made so long ago, dusted off, repolished  and shiny with new empty promises, obfuscations and prevarication, will be reintroduced to the City Council as the pre-ordained recommendation of the Downtown Library Council Subcommittee to build a new Downtown Library under a six story parking garage. A people parking garage with cavernous ceilings and echoing hallways almost but not quite entirely devoid of books.

Caverness

Maybe.

It has not gone unnoticed by the aforementioned people who pay attention, as well as other thinking persons, that local democracy is suffering under the stultifying reaction to the Coronavirus epidemic. What once were face-to-face public meetings have degraded into awkward and limiting remote computer media encounters, with public commentary and questions relegated to faceless voices on scratchy and often unintelligible telephone connections. No longer can we mingle with our fellow citizens in the hallowed halls of government, exchange meaningful glances during the meeting, foment strategy before and after, look our public servants in the eye when they spout their meaningless rhetoric.

It is quite likely that COVID-19 hysteria will subside in the next couple of months, to the point that we can resume face-to-face public meetings, even if somewhat constrained by anti-social distancing.

What would be lost by postponing public hearings of critical public interest until we can meet again in public? Why the urgency to push through a controversial project such as the bastardization of the Downtown Branch Library when the public cannot effectively take part in the deliberations? Who gains from this abrogation of democratic responsibility, and who loses?

One thing almost everyone can do is to contact City Council members and express disappointment and dismay at the loss of our political franchise and our historic library building in the vital Civic Center.

If nothing else, send an email to citycouncil@cityofsantacruz.com and let them know that you want our democracy and our Downtown Library lest they make any more ill advised commitments to our political, economic and cultural future.

The ultimate fate of the Downtown Public Library building, and the state of local democracy, lies in the hands of the citizens of Santa Cruz, city and county.

It’s up to you.