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City rolls the dice on the Taj Garage

Stephen Kessler

Published originally in the Santa Cruz Sentinel September 26 At its June 23 meeting when it approved what is now known as the mixed-use library- housing project—formerly known as the garage-library project, aka the Taj Garage, subsequently lipsticked with “at least 50 units of affordable housing,” thereby eliminating a couple hundred supposedly desperately-needed parking spaces—the Santa Cruz City Council directed staff “to provide a report to the City Council at the earliest possible time, but no later than three months, containing detailed financial information regarding each component of the mixed-use project.”


Whether staff was deliberately trying to pull a fast one on the council by slipping the unread contract into the consent agenda, or just being negligent and unresponsive to the directive to provide financial information, this reckless and opaque process is typical of how this whole unfortunate saga has unfolded.

Exactly three months later, on Sept. 22, with no such report delivered, the council’s consent agenda contained a “Motion to award the contract for the Mixed Use Library Owner’s Representative for Phase 1 to Griffin Structures Inc. … in the amount of $240,000 and authorize the City Manager to execute an agreement in a form to be approved by the City Attorney.” Absent the requested financial information, and without the actual contract in hand, the council was being asked for its consent, without further discussion, to authorize the significant expenditure of city funds toward a project of unknown cost so that Griffin Structures could move forward with “pre-design, design, and permitting,” presumably including the missing financial data on estimated actual costs of the structure’s discrete components: library, housing and parking. When council members Katherine Beiers and Sandy Brown raised the question of financial information, essential to making an informed decision on a project of such magnitude and complexity, the city’s Principal Management Analyst Amanda Rotella, Director of Economic Development Bonnie Lipscomb and City Manager Martín Bernal attempted to explain that the financial details would be provided later by Griffin. In other words, without any realistic idea of what it will cost to build, the council was expected to believe on faith that the mixed-use project would be affordable. As neither the library nor the housing nor the parking component has been designed, there’s no way of knowing accurately how much they will actually cost. And without a finished contract in hand, Mayor Justin Cummings reasonably asked, “What are we spending our money for in this contract?” After further discussion, the council postponed authorization to go ahead until the requested financial data are delivered at their second meeting in October, extending the deadline for another month. This episode illustrates the power dynamic between council and staff that I wrote about last week. Staff apparently presumed that the council would sign off on something they hadn’t seen involving a huge and many-faceted building of no more than conceptual existence at this point. Nobody really knows how much each component will cost or how much additional money must be raised, or from where, to make up for predictable shortfalls in funds already dedicated to this project. This is a strangely irresponsible way of doing business amid the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression and a city budget deficit of more than $19 million. Whether staff was deliberately trying to pull a fast one on the council by slipping the unread contract into the consent agenda, or just being negligent and unresponsive to the directive to provide financial information, this reckless and opaque process is typical of how this whole unfortunate saga has unfolded. If they had simply taken the Measure S funds meant to renovate the library in Civic Center and begun renovating, we might have had a new library by now. But since someone in City Hall had the brilliantly bad idea of moving the library into a parking garage regardless of public opinion, the city has wasted tons of time and money trying to impose its will on the citizenry by whatever devious, deceptive and misleading means it could devise. This time, at least three members of the City Council had the fiscal conscientiousness and courage to say, Hey, wait a minute! Let’s see what the city comes up with next month in the way of a financial report. Stephen


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