Darren Cocroft works the fields at the Homeless Garden Project in July 2021.
Darren Cocroft works the fields at the Homeless Garden Project in July 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Santa Cruz

Homeless Garden Project one step closer to a permanent home in Pogonip

The Santa Cruz City Council has approved a plan that moves the Homeless Garden Project to a permanent home on the upper meadows at Pogonip, near UCSC’s upper campus. The two-year process will seek public input and look into environmental impacts.

For decades, a permanent home for longtime Santa Cruz nonprofit the Homeless Garden Project has been a dream deferred.

But in a Tuesday meeting, the city council took a significant step toward finding the farm and job training program a home in the upper meadows at Pogonip. The unanimous vote initiated a two-year process for gathering public input and studying environmental impacts.

The lead-up

For nearly 30 years, the Homeless Garden Project has provided job training, transitional employment and support services to unhoused individuals on a 3.5-acre farm near Natural Bridges State Beach — but it was never supposed to stay there that long.

“Our move to Pogonip has certainly taken much longer than we ever imagined,” the Homeless Garden Project’s executive director, Darrie Ganzhorn, told Lookout via email.

In 1998, the city’s Pogonip Master Plan envisioned a permanent site for the organic farm in the area’s lower meadow, off of Golf Club Drive, and the organization has been working toward that goal since launching a $3.5 million campaign in 2016 to fund the Pogonip farm. By 2019, the nonprofit had a lease from the city, a design permit and had reached its fundraising goal, but the city hit the brakes on the whole process in mid-2019 when it discovered environmental contamination on the site.

Pogonip, home to a clubhouse throughout the 20th century, was once popular for skeet shooting, which left lead in the soil. Now, the city says only 4.5 acres of the land are safe for farming, compared to the nearly 10 acres that was previously set aside for the Homeless Garden Project’s farm.

In July, Ganzhorn sent a letter to the city requesting it amend the Pogonip Master Plan so the farm could relocate to 9.5 acres on Pogonip’s upper meadow, next to the former clubhouse, rather than the lower, contaminated meadow. One benefit of this, Ganzhorn wrote, could be renewing interest in rehabilitating the clubhouse.

A map from the Pogonip Master Plan
(Courtesy City of Santa Cruz)

According to Ganzhorn, the safety concerns and unanticipated project costs associated with the lower meadow made it “unfeasible” for the group’s farm. And the garden’s current location, near Natural Bridges, will soon so longer be an option: The owner of the property has plans for developing eco-friendly housing on the property, Ganzhorn said.

“After the City identified the contaminated soil issue in the lower meadow, we researched possible sites in Santa Cruz County, including partnering with the City and land-use experts to evaluate the possibility of other City-owned sites,” Ganzhorn told Lookout. “We feel the upper meadow is the only viable alternative to the lower meadow at this time.”

The organization predicts having to raise more money before any relocation, now that years have passed since its initial fundraiser.

A not-uncontroversial decision

More than 30 members of the public spoke during Tuesday’s meeting, both in support of and opposition to the proposed relocation — and hundreds sent letters to the city council and the parks and recreation department.

Several graduates, employees and volunteers of the Homeless Garden Project training program spoke in favor of the move. If the plan goes forward, the nonprofit could triple the number of trainees served.

“This program is no joke,” said Patricia, a Homeless Garden Project graduate who didn’t provide her last name. She entered the program 15 months ago while staying at a shelter, and after completing the program, she has a full-time job — and she has housing.

Between 2013 and 2020, 97% of trainees found steady income after graduating, Ganzhorn said. And in the same period, 90% of graduates found housing.

“I am so honored to say I was a part of this,” Patricia said. “This thing is so much more than a garden.”

Other supporters included officials from California Certified Organic Farmers, Second Harvest Food Bank and Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.

But opposition came from groups including the local chapters of both the California Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club, who cited environmental concerns, among other worries.

“We strongly urge the City to do a better job reaching out to citizens about the proposed changes,” the Sierra Club chapter’s letter read.

Members of the public were concerned about the potential impacts on the coastal prairie habitat, as well as what the plan could mean for the city’s open green space.

According to Cathy Calfo, former board president of the Homeless Garden Project, the farm would convert 3.5 acres of coastal terrace prairie in the upper meadow, compared to what was supposed to be 6 acres under the previous plan in the lower meadow.

Still, one concerned long-term Santa Cruz resident, Rebecca, urged the council to vote no on starting the amendment process. She also did not give a last name.

“Placing the Homeless Garden Project in the upper meadow cuts out the heart of the crown jewel of the greenbelt,” she said in the meeting.

A diagram from the Pogonip Master Plan
(Courtesy City of Santa Cruz)

Next steps

After public comment, the council voted to move forward a study that could amend the master plan — something that would be required for the move.

The public comment period will last for another three or four months, according to Parks & Recreation Director Tony Elliot, followed by a period of environmental review and planning. If this plan goes through, the Homeless Garden Project could break ground as early as fall 2023.

After the meeting, Ganzhorn told Lookout: “We are hopeful that this community-based process will generate meaningful conversations and result in a win-win for the community and for Pogonip itself.”

The council also approved an approximately $102,500 cost for consulting services related to plan amendments and environmental analysis. It also directed staff to estimate the costs of and timeline for cleaning up the lead contamination in the lower meadow, even without the garden moving there.

Councilmembers were clear that the Tuesday vote signaled only the beginning of the process.

But, Councilmember Justin Cummings said, given the Homeless Garden Project’s over 20 years of patience, “We owe it to them to go through this process.”