SANTA CRUZ -- Mayor Mike Rotkin stood on the levee of the San Lorenzo River with other city leaders and residents on Tuesday evening eyeing the dilapidated area for possible development and beautification.
Looking at the backs of old commercial buildings next to the levee near Soquel Avenue, everyone agreed the river area needs a major makeover to help it blend better with downtown and more easily connect visitors to Main Beach and the Municipal Wharf.
"If this area doesn't cry out as a place to do heroin," Rotkin said, "I don't know."
The city's riverfront, starting at Highway 1 and stretching past Laurel Street, has been on the radar for a significant overhaul since early plans were drafted in 2007 by Santa Cruz officials to rid the area of crime and drug use.
They envision a corridor bustling with new restaurants, retail shops and residential units, and maybe some weekend festivals along the river.
The goal is to make the river area and lower Pacific Avenue features of Santa Cruz, rather than a hideout for the homeless, say city officials.
Since the overhaul plans were proposed a couple of years ago, city officials hired a San Francisco-based design and planning consultant to help identify how to make their ideas come to fruition.
On Tuesday, Steve Hammond of the firm Wallace Roberts Todd/Solomon E.T.C. led a walking tour of the river levee and downtown to point out specific spots, such as the Galleria, a complex of offices and restaurants, that needs the city's attention.
For example, Hammond said, Cooper Street dead-ends into the Galleria without giving visitors any indication that the river is just on the other side.
Front Street, he said, needs wider sidewalks and taller, more modern buildings with a strong retail component on the ground floor and residential units on the upper levels.
Access to the river, he said, should be easy and inviting.
"Visitors should be coming through a nicely designed plaza to access the river, not coming through a parking lot," Hammond told the group.
"Imagine the difference here with landscaped patios and plazas."
Hammond recommended the city make changes to existing regulations to allow for taller buildings and increased setbacks on Front Street. He promoted mixed-use developments, flexible parking requirements, moving forward on an old idea to redevelop the downtown Metro Center and starting a shuttle service between downtown and the Main Beach area so visitors only have to "park once."
He suggested the city create a new "River Front Overlay District" to implement the recommended regulatory changes.
Longtime resident Mark Jaffee said the riverbend at the Laurel Street bridge is one of the best views in the city with the mountains in the distance, and the area should be a high priority for new development such as a resort hotel.
He said he'd like to see city leaders move quickly in changing the dynamics of the area.
"I want the river to be a beautiful place," Jaffee said. "It should be a place to kick back with our families instead of fearing for our lives."
The overhaul won't happen overnight, city officials acknowledged. No action was taken Tuesday on Hammond's recommendations.
Rather, his presentation and walking tour were meant to help Santa Cruz develop a long-term strategy for change in the downtown and river areas, making them a unified asset not disparate neighborhoods.
"You can see the kind of work we have ahead of us," Councilwoman Lynn Robinson said. "You can see the potential."