The “broken heart of Westside”

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The Circles neighborhood west of Santa Cruz was founded in 1890 as the Garfield Park State Christian Disciples Campground. Its centerpiece was a park with a tabernacle that also served as a community center, which burned down in 1935, after which the site was leased in 1940 for a municipal park.

This was replaced by the current court church in 1959, which the Disciples operated as a popular non-denominational community center, serving a coalition of congregations, non-profit organizations, outdoor festivals, gym activities and a polling station.

A 2006 visualization workshop promoted the removal of the pews and for the 100th anniversary of their Westside congregation in 2007, changed their name to “the Church of the Circle.” Christopher Drury (who would change his name to VanHall) became a pastor in 2014. Raised a South Baptist in South Carolina and ordained at 22, he was a music director in evangelical mega-churches for several years, a true believer, until he concluded too much the intolerant views of the church were not biblical. VanHall noted, “The more I studied the Bible, the more liberal I became. With a conversion like that of St. Paul, he now found compassion for those denounced by intolerant churches, for the outcasts had been at the center of Christ’s ministry.

Circle Church’s “Faith on Tap” program of cafe-style worship in Garfield Park has successfully evolved into the Greater Purpose Church Tavern and Brewery, located in the East Cliff Village Mall. (Contributed)

VanHall set up cafe seats in 2016, for the annual ‘Faith on Tap’ party, envisioning a Greater Purpose beer label, with proceeds for charitable causes. The idea evolved, envisioning a more centrally located tavern-church and brewing business in downtown Santa Cruz. While VanHall’s ministry at Circle Church was a boon to many, April Knobloch observed that some found him too political, alienating part of the congregation. (Good weather, 1/7/20).

Sell ​​the church

Selling the church on the open market didn’t go well with Westsiders, a building built to serve their neighborhood. The 1.6 acre church property was marketed for $ 3 million in 2017. The Coldwell Banker ad described it as “Large lot in the heart of Westside Santa Cruz with great ocean views!” The lot currently has a church, but is zoned for residential use, and is R-1-5 which will allow 10, 5,000 sq.ft. a lot…. Coldwell Banker’s real estate agent Nico Vargas, representing the church on the sale, said… “The leadership of the church in Vargas when negotiating with buyers was to focus on a buyer with” a goal more community-oriented in mind. ”(Sentinel 9/11/17).

Santa Cruz County Community Housing Land Trust chairman PJ Grube, a real estate broker for nearly 40 years, said his nonprofit had made an offer on church land, intending to keep current uses. “I would have hated myself if I hadn’t made the offer and made my effort to protect our community,” Grube said. (Ibid.) The owner of a theatrical art school at the church also made an offer.

Real estate agent Mark Thomas made a slightly higher offer than his, buying the property for $ 3,266,666. (Coldwell Banker). Thomas “(Thomas) shared a plan with church leaders to use the property for community purposes and community service,” Drury said [VanHall], which was not part of the decision. (Sentinel, 9/11/17). Real estate agent Nico Vargas said: “The church has done a lot of great things in the area. So we found a buyer who wants to help [the church] to achieve their goals and wishes the church’s contribution to help… ensure that this property remains a community benefit, rather than turning into a monster real estate development. (Ibid.) Pastor Drury [VanHall] noted in a November 2017 email that “Garfield Park Church-Phase 2” would be “… a community center serving the diverse population of the Santa Cruz West Side neighborhoods and beyond”. Church aerobics teacher Clara Minor wrote on December 29, 2017 that she “was looking forward to … the long-awaited community center.”

In November 2018, the Westsiders were shocked when they were invited to an ‘awareness meeting’, asking for comments on plans to demolish the church and subdivide the property like a pizza. Thomas had formed an LLC of eight developers, each hoping to build their “dream homes” as a cohabitation project, with a donut hole as their central private common space. Resident John Sears noted that the neighborhood was already functioning as a co-housing development, until their public commons were privatized for development. Public comments often ended, “but I prefer to keep the current use and structure.” While the Westsiders were sympathetic to those who were building their ‘dream homes’, what drew the applause was a speaker saddened by the loss of an important community center and the opening of the site to public access. any side. Thomas replied that the site was now private property, not prone to trespassing. (Sentinel 11/30/18).

Neighbors were frustrated that this city-required outreach meeting had little to do with “public input,” held its own meeting, in which the consensus was to keep the church, buy the site and give the developers a fair return on their investment. But the developers didn’t want to sell, as LLC member Caitlin Rose told Good Times (1/7/20), “…[if] we have to sell the property, it is extremely likely that it will be sold to a big developer who has the money, the lawyers and the time to move a development forward.

Meanwhile, the developers have allowed the Gospel Community Church to rent out the old shrine and let other nonprofits keep their spaces for the time being. Gospel Church had started in a Westside parlor in 2018, which it passed as students from UC Santa Cruz joined, and when they rented out the Circle Church, it brought back missing neighbors. of communion in their former community church. In 2019, Greater Purpose made an offer for the former Logos Bookstore building on Pacific Avenue, during a meeting at the Food Lounge at the Santa Cruz Art Center.

Is it a benchmark?

Neighbors in the circle spoke to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) in March 2019, hoping the building would be considered for possible historical status, as the nearby Baptist Missionary Church was already a listed historic building. HPC employee Ryan Bane (the city’s senior planner) was reluctant because he didn’t think Circle Church was qualified. I was newly appointed to the Commission and said I would write a report to show what qualifies him for a review, so we scheduled the May meeting to hear Bane give an update on the development of the site from church, my submission to be an agenda item of information in the package. But when I went to hand in my report, Bane said that no Circle Church item was on the agenda, and he didn’t remember the committee discussion.

Instead, I handed the report to CHP President Joe Michalak, who had contributed to the agenda. He told me he learned before the March meeting that Bane recommended in 2017-18 that developers prepare a historic review of the church’s DPR 523. It was completed by Bonnie Bamburg on April 29, 2018, but was kept under wraps from HPC until its discovery in February 2019.

When examined in private by Commissioners Jessica Kusz and Michalak, they found incorrect information and an incorrect conclusion. Michalak wrote “… we are very concerned that this has become an official document and is part of the public record.” (March 6, 2019). I was concerned that failing to submit historical ratings for HPC review would leave the impression that planning staff were treating developers like customers, rather than candidates.

The developers ordered a second DPR, with Dikas presenting their findings at an HPC meeting. She said the building could not be compared to other churches of this kind, as there were no similar churches. His argument was that it did not meet the standard criteria, but to me that only underscored its uniqueness as a rare Ranch House-style church, the hallmark of which was the influences of an architect who designed shopping centers. His findings also stated that “… the congregation does not appear to have had a significant impact on the social, cultural, economic or political history of Santa Cruz, state or nation. “

And yet, even without considering its early state-wide resort status, its influence on women’s suffrage, and the creation of circles, I felt that the non-denominational activities of the congregation united the neighborhood, its low-cost senior housing program became a nationwide standard, its ‘Faith on Tap’ produced the innovative ‘Greater Purpose Church’ and its importance led real estate agents to call the “The Heart of Westside” site. Kusz and I were unable to participate in the deliberations, so these findings were never released, and the rest of the commissioners said that while they all had a sentimental attachment to the building, they did not find it historic. .

The future

Meanwhile, the Greater Purpose Tavern-Church was in bad luck. The Logos building had a 30 year old plumbing drain line inadequate for restaurant / brewery demands, slashing their renovation budget and killing the Logos sale. But the East Cliff Brewing Company in the East Cliff Village Mall was losing retired founder James Hrica, who was happy to see his brewery move to a bigger goal. While there have been stumbles over delays caused by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the Tavern Church was finally launched on February 2, 2021, now as a Live Oak Neighborhood Church.

Some expect the Gospel Community Church to be evicted in October after the moratorium on evictions ends. Three recent offers to purchase the Circle property and keep it as it was came separately from a group of neighbors, one from the Gospel Community Church and another from the Santa Cruz County Community Housing Land Trust. . Few are hostile to those who wish to build their dream home, but choosing to do so on land designed to be the focal point of the neighborhood, replacing a neighborhood institution, is destined to be the subject of a constant and intensive review.

The problem with affordable neighborhoods like Garfield Park Circles is an apparent lack of influence, both in terms of zoning and quality of life. Who wants to be told that your main character defining landmark isn’t historic, except for the residents of Circle? The community is not imposed from the outside, but springs from the vitality of a neighborhood. Some still hope to find a win-win solution through a financial offer, while others rather cry that the Heart of Westside is broken.

Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.


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