The broken ‘heart of Westside’ | Ross Eric Gibson, Local History – Santa Cruz Sentinel

The Circles Neighborhood on the Westside of Santa Cruz was founded 1890 as Garfield Park State Christian-Disciples Campground. Its centerpiece was a park with a Tabernacle doubling as a community center, which burned in 1935, after which the site was leased in 1940 for a City Park.

That was replaced with the current courtyard church in 1959, which the Disciples ran as a popular non-denominational community center, serving a coalition of congregations, non-profits, open-air festivals, gym activities and a voting precinct.

A 2006 visioning workshop favored eliminating pews and for the 100th Anniversary of their Westside congregation in 2007, changed their name to “the Circle Church.” Christopher Drury (who’d change his name to VanHall) became pastor in 2014. Raised a Southern Baptist in South Carolina, and ordained at 22, he was music director in evangelical megachurches for several years, a true believer, until he concluded too many intolerant church views weren’t Biblical.  VanHall noted, “The more I studied the Bible, the more liberal I became.” With a conversion like St. Paul’s, he now found compassion for people denounced by intolerant churches, since outcasts had been a large focus of Christ’s ministry.

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The Circle Church’s “Faith on Tap” program of cafe-style worship in Garfield Park, has successfully evolved into the Greater Purpose tavern-church and brewery, located in the East Cliff Village Shopping Center. (Contributed)

VanHall installed cafe-seating in 2016, for annual “Faith on Tap” night, envisioning a Greater Purpose beer label, with proceeds to charitable causes. The idea evolved, envisioning a tavern-church and brewing company more centrally located in downtown Santa Cruz. While VanHall’s ministry at Circle Church was a godsend to many, April Knobloch observed some found it too political, alienating part of the congregation. (Good Times, 1/7/20).

Selling the church

Selling the church on the open market did not set well with Westsiders, a building built to serve their neighborhood. The 1.6 acre church property was marketed for $3 million in 2017.  Coldwell Banker’s advertisement described it as “Large lot in the heart of Westside Santa Cruz with large ocean view! The lot currently has a church on it, but is zoned for residential use, and is R-1-5 which will allow for 10, 5,000 sq.ft. lots….”  Coldwell Banker realtor Nico Vargas, representing the church in the sale, said…”the church’s direction to Vargas in negotiating with buyers was that he focus on a buyer with ‘a more community-oriented goal in mind.’ ” (Sentinel 9/11/17).

Community Housing Land Trust of Santa Cruz County chairman P.J. Grube, a real estate broker of nearly 40 years, said his non-profit organization made an offer on the church land, intending to keep the 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 Theater Arts School at the church also made an offer.

Realtor Mark Thomas made a bid that was just slightly above hers, acquiring 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,” said Drury [VanHall], who was not part of the decision. (Sentinel, 9/11/17). Realtor Nico Vargas said, “The church has done a lot of great things in the area. So we found a buyer that wants to help [the church] to achieve their goals, and wants the church’s input in helping…make sure that this property stays a community benefit, rather than turning into a monster housing 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.”  The church’s aerobics teacher Clara Minor wrote Dec. 29, 2017 that she was “looking forward to…the much-needed community center.”

In November 2018, Westsiders were shocked when invited to an “outreach meeting,” requesting input on plans to demolish the church and subdivide the property like a pizza pie. Thomas had formed an eight-developer LLC, each hoping to build their “dream homes” as a co-housing project, with a donut hole as a central private commons. Resident John Sears noted the neighborhood already operated as a co-housing development, until their public commons was privatized for development. Public comments often ended, “but I prefer keeping the present use and structure.” While Westsiders were sympathetic with those building their “dream homes,” what drew applause was a speaker saddened at the loss of an important community center, and the openness of the site to public access from any side. Thomas responded that the site was now private property, not subject to trespassing. (Sentinel 11/30/18).

Neighbors frustrated that this city-required outreach meeting had little to do with “public input,” held their 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 eventually push through a development.”

Meanwhile, the developers allowed the Gospel Community Church to lease the old sanctuary, and let other non-profits keep their spaces for now. Gospel Church had started in a Westside living room in 2018, which it outgrew as UC Santa Cruz students joined, and when they leased the Circle Church, it brought back neighbors who missed fellowship in their old community church. In 2019, Greater Purpose made an offer for the former Logos Bookstore Building on Pacific Avenue, while meeting at the Food Lounge at the Santa Cruz Art Center.

Is it a landmark?

Circles neighbors spoke before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) in March 2019, hoping to have the building reviewed for possible historic status, since the nearby Missionary Baptist Church was already a listed Historic Building. HPC staffer Ryan Bane (city senior planner) was reluctant, as he didn’t think the Circle Church qualified. I was newly appointed to the Commission, and said I’d write a report to show what qualified it for review, so we scheduled the May meeting to hear Bane give an update on the church-site’s development, with my submission to be an agenda packet informational item. But when I went to turn in my report, Bane said no Circle Church item was on the agenda, and he didn’t remember the commission discussion.

I took the report instead to HPC Chairman Joe Michalak who had input on the agenda. He told me he had learned before the March meeting, that Bane had in 2017-18 recommended the developers prepare a DPR 523 historic review of the church. It was completed by Bonnie Bamburg on April 29, 2018, but was kept secret from the HPC until discovered in February 2019.

When privately reviewed by commissioners Jessica Kusz and Michalak, they found incorrect information and faulty conclusion. Michalak wrote “…we are greatly concerned that this has become accepted as an official document, and part of the public record.” (March 6, 2019). I worried withholding historic assessments from HPC scrutiny left the impression that planning staff were treating the developers as clients, instead of applicants.

The developers commissioned a second DPR, with Dikas presenting her conclusions at an HPC meeting. She said the building couldn’t be compared with other churches of its kind, because there were no similar churches. Her point was it didn’t qualify by standard measures, yet to me it only highlighted its uniqueness as a rare Ranch House-style church, whose character-defining feature was the influences of an architect who designed shopping centers. Her findings also stated “…the congregation does not appear to have had a notable impact in the social, cultural, economic, or political history of Santa Cruz, the State, or Nation.”

And yet, –even disregarding its early statewide resort status, influence on women’s suffrage, and creation of the Circles— I felt the congregation’s non-denominational activities united the neighborhood, its low-cost senior housing program became a standard nationwide, its “Faith on Tap” services produced the innovative “Greater Purpose Church,” and its importance led realtors to call the site “The Heart of Westside.” I and Kusz were unable to participate in the deliberations, so these conclusions were never aired, and the rest of the Commissioners said while they all had a sentimental attachment to the building, they didn’t find it historic.

The future

Meanwhile, the Greater Purpose tavern-church was having bad luck. The Logos Building had a 30-year-old plumbing discharge line inadequate for restaurant/brewery demands, sinking their remodeling budget, and killing the Logos sale. But the East Cliff Brewing Company in the East Cliff Village Shopping Center was losing its founder James Hrica to retirement, who was glad to see his brewery go to a Greater Purpose. While there were stumbles over pandemic-caused delays and stay-at-home orders, the tavern-church finally launched Feb. 2, 2021, now as a Live Oak neighborhood church.

Some expect the Gospel Community Church will be evicted in October at the end of the Eviction Moratorium. Three recent offers to buy the Circle’s property and keep it as it is, have come separately from a group of neighbors, one from the Gospel Community Church, and another try by the Community Housing Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. Few are unsympathetic to those wishing to build their dream homes, but choosing to do it on a lot designed to be the focal point of the neighborhood, by replacing a neighborhood institution, is destined to be the subject of constant, intensive scrutiny.

The trouble with affordable neighborhoods like Garfield Park Circles, is a seeming lack of influence, both in zoning matters, and quality of life issues. Who wants to be told your chief character-defining landmark is not historic except to Circle’s residents? Community isn’t imposed from outside, but springs from the vitality within a neighborhood. Some yet hope to find a win-win solution through a financial offer, while others instead mourn that the Heart of Westside is broken.

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