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Torrent of Scorn Engulfs City Sign

Tourism: Gateway to downtown Santa Cruz is widely panned. A hearing is ordered.

November 04, 2001|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CRUZ — Driving down a winding mountain road into this seaside town, Joseph Wouk passes by the city's new gateway sign, a bright blue and yellow standard erected to guide tourists downtown and offer a warm welcome.

But when Wouk sees the sign, he turns away.

"What were they thinking?" he asks. "This thing looks like it belongs in Anaheim, and I think it would even bother them."

Paid for with $83,000 in public funds, the 15-by-30-foot sign was raised in September. With big yellow letters against a blue metal background, it sits atop three yellow steel poles at an intersection along famed California 1.

The words read simply: "Welcome to River Street. Downtown Santa Cruz."

And people like Wouk simply hate it. So much so that there is now talk of tearing it down.

Stand on a corner in the cozy downtown, grab a table at a coffeehouse or listen to residents as they shop and you will get an earful about "that [darned] sign," as one local columnist wrote.

The furor has generated more calls of complaint to City Hall than any other issue.

Gateway signs are often controversial. After all, they shape the first impression visitors get of a community. But in this liberal college town nestled between redwood-dotted mountains and blue-gray ocean waters, the gateway seems to have stabbed at the heart of civic pride.

"The big monster," one resident called it in a telephone complaint to city officials. Another resident said that the splashy lettering should say, "Welcome to Reno."

One recent morning residents awoke to find the sign tangled in yellow tape. Protesters reportedly left a message: "Do not look. Aesthetic crime scene."

Inundated with complaints, the City Council has ordered the arts commission to hold a special meeting and return with a recommendation.

And the local newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, already appears to have predicted the sign's demise: On Sunday it started a contest asking readers to submit ideas for a new gateway.

"Show everyone what a 'Welcome to Santa Cruz' sign should look like," read the contest rules. "Draw up a better sign than the one we got stuck with (shouldn't be hard). . . ."

Creating a gateway was part of the city's plan to dress up the short thoroughfare along River Street to downtown. Heavily damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, downtown has been gradually rebuilt and now thrives with book and antique stores, boutiques and galleries.

The gateway project, which includes the sign and various street improvements, was held up to public scrutiny during the planning stages five years ago. Passed as part of a federal- and state-funded road project, the plan received strong backing from downtown and River Street merchants who hoped that it would boost business.

But residents' opinions were based mostly on a small drawing of the sign presented at several meetings. When the structure actually went up at one of the city's busiest intersections, residents were shocked.

"Its presence was larger than people expected," said Ceil Cirillo, executive director of the city's redevelopment agency.

"We didn't view it as offensive to people's sensibilities. But they view it as a billboard-type sign, and I think the colors are more dramatic than Santa Cruz has done with its signs."

Some of the project's original backers still think it's a good thing. Former Councilwoman Katherine Beiers calls it whimsical. And some merchants think it serves a valuable purpose as a landmark that will give the street an identity all its own.

"It is something that will catch people's attention," said Bartolo Vivenzi, manager of a mattress store at the nearby shopping center. "It has an old riverboat look to it. I think it will grow on people."

But most residents appear to hate the sign, and opposition cuts across the town's eclectic mix of college students and professors, aging hippies, and professionals who commute "over the hill" to Silicon Valley.

Andy Lenz Sr., the owner of what he only half-jokingly calls "the best little arts store this side of the Mississippi," echoed the suspicions of many residents.

"It looks like it came off a computer . . . like it was designed by an architect," he said.

Not an architect, but close. The sign's creator, Gregory Tung, is an urban designer from San Francisco. After being selected by city officials, he toured the area and decided that the sign should blend beach-style qualities with the industrial elements in the immediate gateway area, including a lumberyard and warehouses.

Tung said he chose the colors to offset the dark green tones of the redwoods and to reflect the city's festive atmosphere.

"It's a somewhat modern tone, definitely not a historic-looking sign, and it has an Art Decoish quality to it," he said.

But many believe that Tung took a wrong turn on his way to Santa Cruz.

One city staffer has suggested shopping the sign to other cities that have a River Street. And Mayor Tim Fitzmaurice jokingly offers another solution if the sign is scrapped.

"We will probably shop it on EBay and try to get our money back," he said.

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