SANTA CRUZ -- County residents will soon have a unique chance to help mold a public gathering place downtown.
The Museum of Art & History has launched a process for renovating Abbott Square, a courtyard beside the museum flanked by Annieglass, Lulu's at the Octagon and Cooper Street.
The courtyard is a bit of an oasis now, with a fountain, benches and potted flowering plants.
But grander plans are ahead, as part of the museum's recent campaign to be an active, central part of the art scene and larger community.
The goal is to create a welcoming, interactive space for families as well as a platform for cultural activities, festivals and art events, museum folks say.
The museum's director, Nina Simon, said the 10,000-square-foot courtyard is owned by the county and managed by the museum.
"Before the quake, it was a really beautiful sunken garden designed by Roy Rydell." Simon said. "After the (1989 Loma Prieta) quake, it was developed into what it is now, and I think many people could agree it's underutilized. There really is no outdoor public gathering place downtown, and I think it really could become a powerful community space."
The brainstorming process will be facilitated by New York-based Project for Public Spaces, a firm founded by William Whyte. The project helped shape the redevelopment of downtown after the Loma Prieta earthquake. PG&E has given $12,500 for planning, Simon said.
Simon said she hopes to have input from a wide spectrum of county residents and to have a report on recommendations in May.
The project is the third phase of the museum's Renewed Ambition Campaign to expand its impact. The campaign started in early 2012 with more hands-on activities and educational events and the museum has raised about $800,000 so far, Simon said.
She said the museum has earmarked $250,000 of that as a starting point for the square redesign, which she estimates will cost from $500,000 to $1 million.
Financial assistance could also come via a grant from ArtPlace, a national initiative to accelerate creative placemaking across the U.S. The museum collaborated with the city of Santa Cruz on a $350,000 proposal for Abbott Square, which was selected as one of 104 finalists in the 2013 granting pool out of 1,225 letters of inquiry, said Karen Bush, the museum's membership director.
The president of the museum board, Vance Landis-Carey, said she is excited to about the project and "its potential to extend the museum's boundaries in a downtown Santa Cruz landmark that expresses the unique spirit of the Santa Cruz community."
Simon recalled the museum's hosting last March of GLOW, a festival of fire and light that drew 2,000 people downtown on a cold night to see the work of artists who dabble in some of the most cutting-edge pyrotechnic arts and engineering in the world.
For information, go to www.santacruzmah.org.
Follow Sentinel reporter Cathy Kelly on Twitter at Twitter.com/cathykelly9
If you go
Abbott Square design workshops
WHEN: 4:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 31, and 9 a.m. to noon Feb. 2
WHERE: Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St.
RSVP/INFORMATION: Email Nina Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 831-429-1964.
A bit of downtown history
Abbott Square is named after Chuck Abbott, the driving force behind creation of Pacific Garden Mall, a play land of urban design laid on top of Pacific Avenue between Water and Cathcart streets that served as the city's calling card in the 1970s and '80s.
Abbott was a commercial photographer who moved to Santa Cruz from Arizona with his wife Esther. In the mid-1960s, he began to feel that downtown was in desperate need of a design upgrade. The Abbotts traveled from coast to coast assessing other cities' designs and came back to Santa Cruz inspired by a garden design in Grand Junction, Colo. The idea was to plant more than 200 trees to create a dappled sunlight effect, to design seating that invited shoppers to stick around.
After a vigorous push by Abbott, who gained the support of downtown businesses and others, the city council approved the new Pacific Garden Mall in the fall of 1968 and the mall opened officially in 1969.
But by the time of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake 20 years later, the mall had fallen out of fashion with some, and it shouldered some blame for the social ills that plagued Santa Cruz. One could argue that the mall succeeded too well; that its goal to make people comfortable in a public space attracted not only shoppers, college students, street performers and various bohemians, but people whom some merchants dubbed "UTEs," or "undesirable transient elements."
As a result, the earthquake created an opportunity to do something different in terms of design for the downtown. And today's Pacific Avenue bears little resemblance to the mall in its heyday.
SOURCE: Sentinel archives
Editor's note: PG&E's grant for the project was $12,500. About $800,000 has been raised for the Renewed Ambition Campaign so far. The amounts were incorrect in an earlier version of this article.