The Santa Cruz Wharf on Nov. 24, 2020.
The Santa Cruz Wharf on Nov. 24, 2020. The wharf could someday get a major facelift under a plan that’s been in the works since 2013.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz City Council moves ahead on wharf renovation plan

A major transformation of Santa Cruz’s historic wharf is inching closer to approval under a long-awaited plan that won City Council approval Tuesday. But whether city planners’ exact vision will come to fruition, and how long it will take, remain open-ended questions.

Although the approval is a major step in the years-long process, it doesn’t guarantee that everything that the master plan proposes will come to be. That’s because individual projects still need to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get approved and funded, city economic development director Bonnie Lipscomb said.

The city’s wharf master plan has been in the works since 2013. With council approval, city officials now can prepare a public works plan for the California Coastal Commission — which also must approve wharf projects — and seek grants and other funding.

The last master plan was passed in 1980. This new one would help determine the direction of the wharf for the next 20 to 30 years. It outlines several major construction projects for the wharf, built in 1914, with a goal of attracting more visitors and improving the city’s overall economic health. Among the proposed improvements:

• A new promenade on the east side to improve pedestrian and bicycle access; a new walkway on the west side; three new buildings, including an Events Pavilion and a “Landmark Building” intended to re-create the old Municipal Wharf warehouse; and an expansion of existing buildings.

• Two new boat landings.

• Up to 65 additional parking spaces, 150 additional bike parking spots and wider sidewalks.

Screeching halt

The council’s wharf discussions resumed Tuesday after coming to a screeching halt during a Nov. 10 meeting. At that time, the city received a letter from Susan Brandt-Hawley, an attorney who frequently deals with environmental issues, outlining problems a group of Santa Cruz citizens had with the master plan’s impact on the environment. Those gripes included:

• The western walkway would change the feel of the wharf and put visitors too close to migratory birds and sea lions.

• The Landmark Building would cover sea lion viewing holes.

• Other proposed structures would be taller than 35 feet, violating rules.

• The master plan does not incorporate all of the Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendations.

“Substantial transformative alterations to the 100-year-old wharf and 50-plus year-old buildings would have significant impacts to historic resources, aesthetics, cultural resources, biology and recreation,” Brandt-Hawley wrote in the Nov. 9 letter on behalf of “Don’t Morph the Wharf.”

In response, the city council pushed its wharf discussion to Tuesday and city staff made minor alterations — among them, recommending the council get Historic Alteration Permits for future wharf projects, according to Lipscomb.

Gillian Greensite, a member of “Don’t Morph the Wharf,” a small, informal coalition formed in 2016 to demand the environmental impact report, said the staff recommendations didn’t address her key concerns with the wharf plan.

Greensite said she doesn’t want the whole master plan thrown out. Her group just wants the city to stick to necessary repairs, and avoid other costly renovations, she said.

The city says there are very few grants available just for deferred maintenance, especially with a 40-year-old master plan. Having a slate of new development allows for more grant and financing opportunities to address structural issues that have been present for years, city asset manager David McCormick said Tuesday evening.

Some critics, including Greensite, argue that certain proposals in the master plan — such as construction of the three new 40-foot-tall buildings and lowering of the western walkway — would change the character of the wharf and cover the openings used for viewing sea lions.

City staff recommended the council commit to preserving or moving the sea lion viewing holes, McCormick said. Other changes, such as the new buildings, would be reminiscent of previous structures on the wharf, according to proposals in the plan. All buildings other than three “landmark” structures would be capped at 35 feet tall, according to the plan.

Even with the master plan, nothing is certain — every proposal, design and change along the way will go to city council and be shaped in community meetings, McCormick emphasized.

“It doesn’t make anything happen tomorrow,” he said.

Council members Cynthia Mathews, Martine Watkins, Renee Golder, Vice Mayor Donna Meyers and Mayor Justin Cummings voted to approve the plan. Council members Sandy Brown and Katherine Beiers voted against it.

Brown said she supported the master plan overall, but was concerned about possible lawsuits over the landmark building proposed for the end of the wharf. Beiers said she worried about the proposed buildings obstructing the view of the water and changing the experience of the wharf “150 percent.”

City officials said including a building in the master plan will give the city flexibility to adapt the wharf to the region’s future needs. Attracting tourism and new demographics to the wharf “is going to be critical for longterm economic success,” Lipscomb said.

Too upscale?

Greensite said she worries that the plan will ultimately make the wharf, what she calls her “second home,” too upscale and inaccessible to everyday people. Some Santa Cruz residents expressed similar concerns during a public hearing Tuesday night.

“Nobody’s saying don’t replace the road or repair the pilings that need fixing. But this? Gentrification is an understatement,” said Greensite, a former UCSC employee who has lived on the lower Westside for 45 years.

“Don’t Morph the Wharf” will watch how the city proceeds with the plan, and will decide whether to pursue legal action from there, Greensite said.

“We’ll consider options,” she said.