Building a Downtown Public Space that is OF/ BY/FOR ALL

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Community Development

By Nina Simon, Executive Director, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

This article was originally featured in the October 2018 issue of Main Street Matters.

Nina Simon is the keynote speaker during Thursday’s Real Places Conference 2019 lunch session. She has been called a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian Magazine, a Silicon Valley Business Journal “40 under 40,” and Santa Cruz County Woman of the Year for her innovative community leadership.

In 2013, the museum I run, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), embarked on an unusual capital project. We led the creation of Abbott Square, a downtown plaza incorporating food, music, family-friendly activities, art, and history.

We designed this plaza the same way we design every project; through a community process. We strive for our work to be OF, BY, and FOR everyone in our community. Here’s a bit about our process. When we first started talking about redeveloping Abbott Square as a community plaza for downtown Santa Cruz, we ran into some basic questions. What amenities does it need? Will it feel welcoming and inclusive for different communities? Whose vision of downtown are we designing for?

We answered these questions through four years of community conversations. We kept meeting and involving new advocates with strong and differing perspectives. The result is a project dreamed up by our community, then harnessed, honed, and taken to completion by the MAH.

Here are three significant ways community participation influenced our project:

1. Community stakeholders made us confront the reality of divergent perspectives about downtown Santa Cruz.

Going into the project, we saw the museum’s location in downtown as a huge asset to the project. MAH staff and trustees see downtown as a vibrant retail, dining, and entertainment district, packed with diverse people. We started the Abbott Square project to bring more of the people visiting downtown into the MAH.

But when we started hosting formal community visioning workshops in 2013 with the Project for Public Spaces, we heard other opinions of downtown. We heard suburban moms describe downtown as dangerous, dirty, and unappealing. Business people asked how we would keep out homeless people, drug addicts, and deviant behavior. Some people were downright incredulous that we could achieve our goals for a creative community plaza in downtown.

At first, I resisted and discounted these skeptics. I thought they had distorted perceptions of downtown. But over time, I learned to take their perceptions at face value. Their reality is not my reality, but it is real to them. And that led to two conclusions. First, that we should do what we can to address some community members’ real concerns about safety, cleanliness, and signals of welcome. We started designing ways to make Abbott Square a desirable “first landing place” in downtown—especially for families with children.

And second, while we want Abbott Square to be a welcoming community plaza downtown, we have to accept the reality that some people in our county will never come downtown. We are taking concerns about cleanliness and safety seriously. But we are focusing on people who are skeptical yet open to downtown, not those for whom that door is closed shut.

2. Community stakeholders drove us to add food to the project in a big way.

When we first pitched Abbott Square to community members as a MAH project, we heard the same thing again and again; “I like the MAH. I love art and performances and family festivals. But food and drink are going to be the things to bring me back again and again.”

This community preference gave me a healthy dose of humility. A plaza rooted solely in creative practice was not going to achieve our community goals. We scaled up the food component.

We went from planning for one coffee shop and a small cafe to imagining a public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We invested way more time, money, and energy into adding food than we originally planned. We entered into a major new partnership to build Abbott Square Market. While Abbott Square still has art, history, and community at its heart, I accept the reality that food is what will drive most people to the plaza.

3. Community stakeholders made this a community

Every step of the way, we reminded ourselves that we could only build a community plaza with our community. We found ways to engage community members in every step of the development process. Rather than engaging people in one aspect or way, we developed new forms of participation as needed. The first workshops were quite formal. They generated a fancy (and useful) report. But they were just the beginning. Here are a few other ways we involved community members in Abbott Square development:

  • We created a set of coasters with the Abbott Square core components written on them: FOOD, ART, HISTORY, PLAY, COMMUNITY. Any time we met with people about the project, we invited them to sort the coasters in order of importance and discuss their rankings. And then we encouraged them to keep and share the coasters.
  • We let people put their mark on the project without selling its soul. Before we tore out all the pavers, we invited people to “buy a brick” for a contribution of any amount, painting their name on it right then and there. We held a demolition party where people could draw and write their names on walls that were later destroyed. And when neighbors asked if they could take home pavers for their own construction projects, we always said yes. We also avoided selling naming rights for any part of the plaza, keeping it a community space. We honored all $1,000+ donors together on one interactive sculpture.
  • We held open design competitions for the two major public art components of Abbott Square. Community members served on juries, and we invited hundreds of museum members, donors, and visitors to weigh in on proposed designs.
  • We invited Abbott Square advocates to host their own lunches or cocktail parties at the MAH to discuss the future of downtown with their friends.
  • Whenever possible, we held public presentations/celebrations of the project. Most involved a fundraising ask, but we always made sure to welcome donors giving $1 as well as those giving $100,000. There were several events where we received gifts across that full range.
  • We empowered a teen intern to make a video featuring MAH visitors to generate support for the project.
  • We invited interested folks to attend major city and county hearings on the project and to offer testimony about the value of the project to them.
  • We formed an “Operation Abbott Square” task force of business-minded volunteers to help us plan for operational changes at the MAH post-expansion into Abbott Square.

Curious about community participation but not sure where to start? Check out OF/BY/FOR ALL, a new set of online tools for organizations of all stripes that want to involve their communities. On the site, you’ll find a free five-minute self-assessment you can use to get a customized report on where your organization struggles and where it shines when it comes to being of, by, and for your community. At the Real Places Conference, I’ll go deeper in unpacking this methodology and how it can work for you.

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