Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why We Moved the Abbott Square Opening - A Mistake, a Tough Call, & a Pivot: Introducing Abbott Square, Bonus Post

Excited to open... but not quite yet.
This is the eleventh in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Twelve days ago, we started the two-week countdown to opening Abbott Square. We sent out hundreds of flyers with the eight-night Opening Week schedule. We lined up press. We shifted staff schedules. We had 2,000 t-shirts to give away, 850 balls to drop, and over a hundred artists, accordionists, salsa dancers, taiko drummers, and bubble ladies ready to go.

Ten days ago, we called it all off.

Why? The reason is simple: we weren’t ready. Abbott Square is a plaza, a garden, and a marketplace with 6 restaurants and 2 bars. Marketplace construction isn’t complete. All those chefs haven’t had a chance to stock their food or train their staff. We know food and drink are essential parts of Abbott Square. They are worth the wait. And so, at the last moment, we pulled the rip cord and postponed the events.

The more interesting question is this: why did it take so long to make this decision?

I knew for months that construction was delayed. I knew for weeks that we weren’t going to be able to do all the restaurant prep we had planned for. Why didn’t I make the decision to postpone sooner?

I think the answer comes down to three things.

1. I was too optimistic.
Leading an entrepreneurial project requires a lot of optimism. For years, I’ve been a cheerleader, fundraiser, and spokesperson for this project. When people were skeptical of the vision three years ago, it was my job to win them over. When we needed funds two years ago, it was my job to inspire people to give. When staff were unsure how it would change their jobs a year ago, it was my job to get colleagues onboard. And now in construction, I’ve been telling the community how great the project will be when it opens.

And let’s be clear: it WILL be great. But my realist brain never got the full attention of my cheerleader brain. Partly, I was inexperienced; when construction managers gave me a date, I figured they knew more than I did. But considering how often those dates slid, I should have seen the writing on the wall sooner. I should have taken a break from cheerleading to identify the likely outcome of the trend of construction delays.

2. We had a hard opening date instead of a go/no go threshold.
Back in March, I asked our market partner when he thought construction would be done. He said April 15. And then they’d want two weeks of soft opening - May 1. We added a month to be safe and agreed to have a big grand opening June 2-9. Once we locked this in, I focused on those dates, driving towards them, cranking to get done in time. I felt that a reasonable goal would focus us to get to a successful opening. As that goal became unreasonable, instead of adjusting, I dug in harder. I pushed to open on time, and got more and more stressed as it seemed like we might not hit our dates. By the time of that key decision, I’d barely slept in days.

How could we have avoided this? Instead of pushing to hit a date, I wish I had defined thresholds for a quality grand opening, like “we must have a Certificate of Occupancy at least three weeks prior” or “chefs must have at least 2 weeks to train/soft open.” If I had taken that tack, we would have postponed sooner.

3. It felt easier to commit to dates than to embrace ambiguity.
I felt pressure, both in myself and within our staff team, to provide a date. We are pros at event planning at the MAH, but all event plans start the same way: with a date. It felt like we needed to lock in a date so we could book collaborators, schedule staff, market the activities, and plan everything. So we did. We picked dates we thought were extremely safe… until they weren’t. When construction delays started to get too close to June 2, we started reframing the events—calling them “previews” instead of “opening.” Ultimately, even this reframing wasn’t going to fly, and we had to postpone.

Weirdly, once we decided to postpone, it seemed much less overwhelming than I expected to move everything. Now it feels like we have an amazing event-in-a-box ready to go whenever we are able to lock in new dates. That fixation on dates may have been unhelpful from the start.

I am so grateful to our staff, board, and community for supporting this change. I made the mistake, and they made the solution work. Our staff did an amazing job communicating the change with press, members, and partners—even shifting a huge cover story that went to print just hours after we made the change. Our team clearly, quickly told everyone about the change, and we emphasized that we were postponing so we could offer members the best experience possible. People were understanding about the delay and excited about the opening to come. And I went back to sleeping at night... while spending my days working hard to make the project live up to our community's biggest dreams.

Have we reset new opening dates? Heck no! Here’s our new strategy:
  • We’ll host an Abbott Square Preview Night on June 2 as part of First Friday activities.
  • When the Market gets its Certificate of Occupancy, we will work with the Market management to determine how many weeks of training and soft opening they need to open successfully. We'll start soft opening our new programming in the plaza during this period too.
  • We’ll set new grand opening dates based on soft opening needs and fire up our events plan with a few tweaks. 
And next time we open something comparably complex, we’ll set this kind of plan from the start.

Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ask Me Anything about our Expansion... and Enjoy All the Posts in the Abbott Square Series

We’re just weeks away from opening Abbott Square to the public here in Santa Cruz, CA. Over the past ten weeks, I’ve written about some of the most potent, confounding, and pivotal moments in making this $5,000,000 community plaza project real.

Here are all the posts in the series. For every story I wrote down, there are ten others rattling around in my head. I’d love to hear your questions and comments. What do you want to know about the project or the process? No question too small. Let's learn more together.

Add your questions to the comments here. Enjoy these posts. And if you are in the area, join us for the Abbott Square Preview June 2 in downtown Santa Cruz. You can also check out the great cover story in the Good Times.


  1. Introducing Abbott Square - welcome to the blog series
  2. Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider it Too - if our community lives beyond our walls, shouldn't our work go outside too? 
  3. Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza - how we involved community stakeholders and citizens from day 1
  4. The Most Important Question to Ask in a Capital Campaign - what is your project worth?
  5. What a Board is For - how trustees help you go beyond your limits
  6. Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease - how can you decide collectively what you value most?
  7. How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress - a cautionary tale
  8. From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion - when and how do you bring your staff into a new project?
  9. Think Like a Real Estate Developer - a new way of looking at opportunities on the horizon
  10. What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? - questioning long-held beliefs about gentrification and inclusion

Please share your questions or comments! You can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? Introducing Abbott Square, Part 10

This is the tenth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started working on the food side of the Abbott Square project, it raised some basic questions about community inclusion. How could we build a market that was as diverse as our museum? Would adding a major commercial component to the project make it more or less welcoming?

Our staff and community saw these questions differently from the start. Staff members wanted to protect the MAH’s focus on reflecting the diversity of our community. We’ve worked hard for years to make the MAH a place that includes and welcomes people of all backgrounds. Success for us looks like MAH participants reflecting the age, ethnic, and economic diversity of our county. We’re very close to hitting all these targets. We didn’t want Abbott Square to be a step back on the path to community representation.

At the same time, we heard from community members how essential food was to make Abbott Square a compelling place to visit. People were hungry for more lunch, dinner, and happy hour options downtown. And the kind of food they wanted—fresh, local, diverse cuisine—didn’t lend itself to the cheapest options possible.

When we started working with the master tenant/developer on the market, he promised the market would feature “real food for real people.” Diverse chefs would present cuisines from around the world. There would be no white tablecloths—nor any table service at all. But some of us were still wary. Were we creating a gentrifying space instead of an inclusive one?

So our whole staff went to visit another public market the developer had started: San Pedro Square Market in San Jose. The food was mid-range in price. The cuisine represented many countries and flavors. The space was loud, friendly, and packed. And the staff and clientele were more ethnically diverse than any museum in the region--including ours.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market was a humbling wakeup call for me. Here we were, feeling righteous about our inclusive work, and there they were feeding a more diverse crowd than participated at the MAH.

No matter how focused we are on inclusive work at the MAH, we’re still doing it in the frame of a museum. To many people, an art museum is a more potent symbol of exclusivity and elitism than a hipster coffeeshop or a poke bar. In some communities’ eyes, art is a bigger gentrification concern than food.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market reminded me of all the community members who got excited about Abbott Square and the MAH because of the food. There are many, many people in this world who do not feel welcome, invited, or interested in museums. All those people eat. Many of them (more and more every year) eat out. More people, and more diverse people, go to restaurants than go to museums. Many people might feel a greater sense of invitation from a West African rice bowl or custom popsicle in Abbott Square Market than from MAH exhibitions.

I don’t want to discount the potential for Abbott Square Market to be a force for gentrification. It could be. We have to be attentive to its impact on the MAH community and our downtown. But I'm not willing to give the MAH or any art institution a pass in this attentiveness. I don't assume that nonprofits are automatically more inclusive than businesses.

We have to keep working on many levels to include diverse participants—and we will keep doing so, indoors and out. In Abbott Square Market, we’re working with diverse chefs, with diverse staffs, to welcome diverse customers who like to eat out. In the plaza and the museum, we're working with diverse partners, on diverse programs, to welcome diverse visitors who like to connect through creativity and culture. We’re offering many experiences, at many price points, with many partners. It’s all part of opening up the MAH to more of our community.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Think Like a (Real Estate) Developer: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 9

This is the ninth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Studying engineering taught me to think like a designer: state the problem, brainstorm, test, iterate.
Working with creative people taught me to think like an artist: observe, explore, dive in, look out.
Partnering in community taught me to think like an organizer: listen, connect, build shared purpose.
Building the Abbott Square project taught me a whole new mindset: that of the real estate developer.

Real estate developers have two distinctive qualities I’m learning to adopt: they think from the outside in, and they balance flexible optimism with clear criteria for success.


Before the Abbott Square project, I approached planning from an internally-driven perspective. We develop the ideas. We explore the possible programs. We develop the projects. The “we” isn’t always staff; in most cases, our staff work with community partners in a participatory, co-creative model. But we mostly start projects from the dreams and challenges of the partners in the room.

Real estate developers don’t think this way. They approach planning from the outside in, starting with the external conditions of the land around them. Each site provides its own set of opportunities and constraints. The question is not, “what do I want to do?” but “what can I do with this?”

This mindset expands my world. Even as we talk about “abundance thinking” in nonprofits, we tend to restrict ourselves to a limited landscape of opportunities. We don’t look too far beyond our existing programs, sites, and partners. We don’t scan every new encounter for its potential. Because we want control, we start by controlling ourselves, pre-selecting a narrow window of possibilities based on the frames we’ve already installed.

Real estate developers taught me to stop focusing on my own locus of control. Now I look outside the window and wonder what opportunities different sites and partners could unlock. It’s like Pokemon Go for professional opportunities; that site has some gold sparkles, that park is hopping with party animals, that collaboration request has a rainbow guarded by trolls.


Real estate developers blend optimism and flexibility with clear-eyed assessment of what external conditions make a project go. Developers will move mountains to make a project they believe in work—but they’ll also drop a project in an instant if the external conditions make it untenable. If a project doesn’t pencil out or meet the criteria they feel spell success, developers walk away. There will always be another site, another project, another opportunity for a better fit.

This approach requires being explicit and honest about criteria for success or failure. Every developer I’ve talked with can list specific things that will make them pursue or drop a project—at any stage. One guy will only work in specific municipalities. Another has to own the building. It doesn’t matter how attractive the project is if they can’t have what they feel they need to make it succeed.

In my nonprofit world, I’m neither required nor challenged to develop such clear criteria. My general nonprofit MO is to pursue a project and to keep adjusting and learning our way to the finish line. There are some projects that go on too long before they get axed. We identify flaws emergently rather than starting with clear “go/no go” criteria.”

Thinking like a developer has made me more comfortable pursuing many early-stage possibilities in parallel instead of marching forward in sequence. I assume most early-stage opportunities won’t end up lining up, but I won’t know which ones are viable until we get further down the road. I want the “deal flow” of opportunities—and I’m working to hone my own mental checklist of necessary criteria.


An engineer says: “I’ll try this and learn something, then I’ll try that and learn something, and eventually I’ll get it right.”

An artist says: “I’ll explore the world, pull ideas from it, and craft a response.”

A nonprofit manager says: “Based on what we’ve learned and the partnerships we’ve built, we’ll move forward like this, together.”

A developer says: “I’ll open many conversations, and when I find the one that meets all my criteria, I’ll go full steam ahead on that one and drop the others that don’t.”

All of these are valid ways to approach the world. Which will you use for your next project?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.