Quick Take:

“We’re investing in building momentum this summer,” the City of Santa Cruz’s development manager says of goings-on at the wharf, where the balance between tourists and locals, new challenges and old wooden pilings, development and a fragile ecosystem are all part of the equation.

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Restaurants at the Santa Cruz Wharf have been buffeted by a series of challenges in recent years: a drop in business caused by pandemic shutdowns followed by post-COVID staffing shortages, an onslaught of stormy weather and the alarming rise in food prices. Despite the turmoil, tourism has rebounded sharply, and the annual migration of chowder-seeking tourists far outstripped capacity at the wharf last summer.

Restaurant owners and their landlord — the City of Santa Cruz — are aiming to do more than merely meet demand in time for summer. They are looking at ways to transform the wharf into a destination for tourists and locals alike.

This summer, the City’s Parks and Recreation department is planning a free concert series at the wharf on the second Tuesday of every month from May through September. A pop-up beer garden with Humble Sea Brewing Co. is expected to open in late April on the freshly revamped decking of the old Miramar site, where Humble Sea’s popular brews will pour from the taps of a specially outfitted surf van.

Both events are experiments designed to entice locals and build upon the success of midweek menu specials and free parking. The goal is to attract a more consistent flow of patrons midweek and off-season to improve revenues and reduce fluctuation in seasonal staffing.

“We’re investing in building momentum this summer because supporting these businesses is good for Santa Cruz,” said David McCormic, who oversees use agreements, leases and development at the wharf for the city. “We have both the responsibility and the remarkable opportunity to work together and reimagine what the wharf could be.”

The city is invested in attracting new visitors to the pier by economic necessity. The Santa Cruz Wharf, which is technically a pier (wharves run parallel to shore), juts out over half a mile out into the Monterey Bay. More than 400 people — 10% of the city’s restaurant workforce — are employed at the wharf.

The stage and bocce court on the Santa Cruz Wharf.
The stage and bocce court on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The pandemic brought a drop in tourism that no one could have foreseen, and traffic on the wharf dropped by a precipitous third, from 480,000 cars in 2019 to 318,000 in 2020. Wharf income is down at the same time that climate change is upping the pressure from a relentless sea for increased maintenance and capital investment.

Every cent of both commercial lease and parking fees are reinvested in wharf maintenance and capital improvements. When visitation drops and restaurant receipts suffer, it affects the workforce and the city’s general fund, which has to be tapped to keep the wharf in working repair. For the past eight years, the numbers haven’t penciled out for the wharf to be self-sufficient, and the city has met the shortfall to pay for maintenance. Capital improvement projects have been postponed.

Regular maintenance at the wharf is no minor task. There are more than 4,000 wooden piers underneath, plus decking, the roadway, miles of railings and an extensive utility infrastructure.

Day-to-day operation, maintenance and repairs are handled by the city’s Parks & Recreation department. However, the California Coastal Commission and no fewer than six other federal and state entities have permitting rights over maintenance and monitoring. The need to balance the wharf’s fragile ecosystem with the constant challenges of preserving a wooden pier on the California coast make permit approvals time-consuming and complicated.

The typical process for application and approvals can easily take two years. Consider, for example, that most work within 150 feet of a bird’s nest requires the city to employ an on-site biologist. Or that all maintenance work involving more than one hand-held power tool must be undertaken in the winter months, when the seas are rougher and, particularly this past winter, storms can make progress almost impossible. The limited window for repairs poses significant challenges to maintenance of decking, paving and pilings, creating an even bigger hurdle to taking on capital improvements.

Spending data, visitor patterns and public input will inform ideas for future development, from design and menu concepts for the new Miramar restaurant, now in planning stages, through implementation of the Santa Cruz Wharf Master Plan over the next 20 to 30 years.

Makai bartender Tristen Vukelich gets with the island theme.
Makai bartender Tristen Vukelich gets with the island theme. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

That master plan, designed to provide guidelines for development, was unanimously adopted by the city council in 2020. It includes funding approvals for specific projects, allows the city to apply for grant funding and details design and development approval processes that value historic preservation.

Prompted by the 2011 tsunami, the new master plan was challenged immediately after adoption by a lawsuit, which prompted an updated environmental impact report. The new EIR delves deeper into the plan’s recreational benefits, which include a multimodal bike path, dedicated fishing areas and better emergency access. In all, the plan calls for an increase of about 2.5 acres of public space and improved structural resiliency.

In mid-April, the updated EIR will be made available here, with a period of comment open to the public through fall.