As Pleasure Point braces for change, its development issues resonate all over Santa Cruz County

The view over Portola Drive and the neighborhood of Pleasure Point.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With Santa Cruz County’s sustainability plan moving toward approval, one notoriously independent surf-centered neighborhood sits in the crosshairs of future change. How fast things along the Portola Drive corridor are disrupted, and how many new units of housing are involved, are among the unknowns. The issues in Pleasure Point mirror much of the housing-related controversies now happening in downtown Santa Cruz, along the city’s corridors, in Soquel, and soon, more widely across the entire county.

Ishtar Carter puts her seamstress skills to use fixing a wetsuit.
(Via Ishtar Carter)

Ishtar and Oliver Carter spent their “life savings” to take over and expand a beloved wetsuit repair business at 32nd Avenue and Portola Drive less than a year ago.

They did so because of its mom-and-pop nature, its historical significance and its direct service to Pleasure Point’s most notable populace: surfers.

They’re also carrying on the previous owners’ quiet tradition of not allowing any local kid to forgo the life-altering experience made possible by a wetsuit.

Another desirable: By repairing rather than chucking the prized neoprene invented by Pleasure Point’s most notable longtime resident — the late Jack O’Neill — their small business promotes sustainability amid an industry responsible for an estimated 380 tons of non-biodegradable waste each year.

“We’ve kept 600 wetsuits out of the landfill,” Ishtar told Lookout last week.

To do that, they’ve made a big commitment, signing a five-year lease and expanding the space at Blown Out Surf Shack.

So the letter they recently received from Santa Cruz County was a shocker. It explained that the parcel the shop sat on will soon be rezoned, making it a prime site for a new mixed-use commercial/residential development.

Ishtar and Oliver Carter have expanded Blown Out Surf Shack and given it a makeover.
Ishtar and Oliver have expanded Blown Out and given it a makeover.
(Via Ishtar Carter)

A little digging, the couple says, confirmed that the shop they had invested in, along with three residential units adjacent that their landlord has rented out, could well be bulldozed if their landlord sells to a developer.

“We gave up our entire life savings to make this business continue,” she said.

The Carters would seem to own the type of family-owned business neighborhood advocates refer to when extolling Pleasure Point’s low-key culture and “know-your-neighbor” style.

They are also just one of many Santa Cruz County, and California, citizens caught in an ever-developing modern zeitgeist: Change is coming, and it’s mostly about housing.

Elected officials and their staffs are increasingly under pressure to chip away at the county’s deficit of 12,979 units the state expects it to add by 2031 — and the result of that pressure now drives a fair amount of news, and community conflict, locally.

Consider all that is in play: The high-rises going up on lower Front Street and Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, the 831 Water Street development (and plans for more across the street from it) at North Branciforte Avenue, the city’s recently stalled again “corridors plan,” the Project Homekey development off Park Avenue in Soquel or what is percolating along Portola Drive.

Housing affordability in California by county
(Via Sol Property Advisors)

All of those projects come down to housing stock — or a lack thereof — with a particularly sharp focus on adding more affordable units in general and those for very-low-income residents specifically.

What began many months ago in the city of Santa Cruz is about to soon spread into the unincorporated zones of Pleasure Point, Soquel, Aptos, Live Oak and the San Lorenzo Valley thanks to what residents have been hearing about as mostly the “sustainability update plan.”

Ishtar and Oliver Carter are feeling the impact of those winds of change, as will many others as the county government completes its “updates.”

Those zoning and related changes along the commercial corridor of Portola Drive — and many other places across the county — will move into place by year’s end when the county passes what it formally calls the Sustainability Policy and Regulatory Update.

The final details of that plan are being sifted through by the Santa Cruz County Planning Commission — an anticipated final meeting this Wednesday will cover zoning issues — and the public still has time to add input via a public comment portal.

Then its recommendations will be passed to the board of supervisors, which will likely present its own findings, receive final public input and take a vote sometime in November.

Once the supervisors have their final say, it will go to the California Coastal Commission for final approval.

Past projects have fizzled

How quickly final approval will lead to change remains anyone’s guess. It will largely depend on the individual landowners’ willingness to cash out and then a developer’s ability to get a project done.

“Ultimately it’s in the hands of those owners,” says 1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig, who represents Pleasure Point’s 5,800 residents. “But we’ll also need proposed parameters that will yield successful projects rather than having unrealistic ones that let things sit there for another 20 years.”

1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig.

The Portola corridor has seen its share of stalled projects. In 2016, a mixed-use plan for the old lumberyard at 38th Avenue and Portola Drive, drew neighborhood ire over a number of issues, most notably parking concerns.

Instead of a mix of a coffeehouse, artisan booths and condos, the neighborhood kept its vestiges of an old lumberyard. Out of that conflict sprung the advocacy group called Save Pleasure Point.

The group then became influential in vetting, and communicating to the neighborhood about, a hotel proposal right across Portola at the site of Black Pearl Tattoo — a project that also ultimately succumbed to parking concerns, among other issues.

Jo Ann Allen (hat), Patti Brady (middle) and Carin Hanna, members of Save Pleasure Point
JoAnn Allen (with hat), Patti Brady (middle) and Carin Hanna, members of Save Pleasure Point.
(Via JoAnn Allen )

Group leader Patti Brady says she wants to be clear: “We are not anti-density, not anti-growth, not NIMBYs.”

In an op-ed piece for Lookout in July, the group said that design objectives it had helped the county put together via an involved public input process in 2018 — called the Pleasure Point Commercial Corridor Vision & Guiding Design Principles — hadn’t been adhered to in early drafts of the county’s sustainability plan circulating at meetings.

In those drafts, parts of Portola’s rezoning plan would allow for more than double the density that currently exists, 45 units rather than the current 17.4, in a designation termed “urban residential, flexible high-density housing.” (So-called “density bonuses” could push those numbers much higher.)

The neighborhood group Save Pleasure Point wants to protect the culture and character of its eclectic coastline...

The group wrote, “Pleasure Point is not urban. We do not have a strong, sustainable infrastructure to support this level of high-density housing. Our parking availability, public transportation, water resources and public safety are already strained and need major improvements. We can’t support more without first improving what we currently have.”

Manu Koenig heads out for an afternoon surf at Pleasure Point.
Manu Koenig heads out for an afternoon surf at Pleasure Point in 2020.
(Jason Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Group leaders cautiously believe they’ve got the ear of Koenig, that he understands the group’s concerns with density and will back its proposed compromise of 30 units. He maintains that he’s listening.

“I’ll certainly say that the Save Pleasure Point community has made themselves heard,” Koenig said. “And I’ll definitely do everything I can to make sure we honor the Pleasure Point design guidelines to bring this sustainability update to fruition.”

‘A different animal’

In areas like Pleasure Point, resistance to change can be strong, and Koenig found that out the hard way in June 2021, only a few months into his first term in politics.

Kirsten Liske of Live Oak biking
Kirsten Liske of Live Oak tried out the newly protected bike lane on Portola Drive before it was quickly removed after neighborhood upheaval.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It occurred when a “pop-up” road reconfiguration along Portola literally popped up overnight, catching many residents by surprise and spurring a quick and angry revolt.

Visual evidence of what planners like to call a “road diet,” with new dividers, designed to reroute traffic into one lane and make more space for bikers and walkers, being ripped from the asphalt, quickly went viral.

“Pleasure Point is a different animal,” one longtime resident told Lookout the next day. “People are very protective of their neighborhood.”

The reaction was quick and pointed as Portola Drive went on a "pop-up road diet."
(Via @newpointlocal)

Former 1st District Supervisor John Leopold said understanding Pleasure Point’s unique constituency is essential, and extra communication has only grown in importance.

What he referred to as a “tactical error” by Koenig in not holding a public meeting before the pop-up brought back memories for him of trying to make improvements to East Cliff Drive as the seawall and bluff protection project was finally coming to fruition.

It’s a great community where people like things the way they are and resist change. And some people will stretch the truth.

— Former 1st District Supervisor John Leopold

“It’s a great community where people like things the way they are and resist change,” he said. “And some people will stretch the truth.

“I had to call a meeting out on East Cliff because people were saying Jack’s house was going away and we were putting a parking garage on the Dirt Farm,” Leopold said of O’Neill’s iconic green multistory on the coast side near 38th Avenue and the patch of the undulating dirt-covered cliff next to it that has served as a popular surfers hangout.

“Crazy, crazy stuff.”

The famous green house of the late Jack O'Neill and a patch of sandy cliff known as the "Dirt Farm."
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As he and his staff unwound fiction from fact, he said, “We explained the process and said what was actually happening. By the end of that meeting, the bad energy was gone. And when it got built, everyone loved it.”

Leopold said what happens too often, sadly, is that meetings are held years before action is taken. By the time something like a pop-up or an East Cliff reconfiguration happens, many residents don’t recall that there was a plan or whether they had actually been in favor of it.

What’s worse, he said, is when the plan comes back changed with no further public input process. Much like the members of Save Pleasure Point felt when density recommendations formally made in the Pleasure Point design document weren’t reflected in the working sustainability plan.

If density levels were maxed out, the maximum of three-story buildings spelled out in the design guide could suddenly become four stories after developer density bonuses are applied.

They have a legitimate gripe, in my opinion, to say, “You said you were listening to us, but now you’re giving us back something that’s not reflective of that.”

— Former 1st District Supervisor John Leopold

“That is a change that I wouldn’t do without reengaging the community,” Leopold said. “They have a legitimate gripe, in my opinion, to say, ‘You said you were listening to us, but now you’re giving us back something that’s not reflective of that.’”

The former supervisor said he worries about an already-jaded populace becoming even less politically engaged.

“Why would you participate in that process if you thought that you had an agreement and the county threw it out the window because they waited five years to deal with it?” he said. “That’s a tough thing to square with the democratic ideal.”

Pleasure Point’s beat-up beach cottages are being torn down to erect multistory, multimillion-dollar homes. For lifelong...

A done deal for Blown Out?

Koenig said he has communicated with the Carters, and that he wouldn’t anticipate a major development on that parcel.

“That particular site is relatively small, 11,000 square feet, so it would be hard to do any kind of major project there,” he said. “But that’s ultimately up to the owner of the property and how they want to approach it.”

To Ishtar and Oliver Carter, though, the equation is far simpler. If the site gets redeveloped and they are forced to move, the parents of three young children will be put into scramble mode trying to figure out if they can keep the business going and where.

Ishtar Carter and Diane Berkhemer.
(Via Ishtar Carter)

“We couldn’t wait around even if there would be a space for us, and moving is expensive,” Ishtar said. “We invested our life savings in this business, took over the second commercial spot, and we’re investing all of our own money into making it a workable space.”

Ishtar says she was 10 years old when she and her sister walked into Diane Berkhemer’s original store in the East Cliff Shopping Plaza and picked up matching spring suits for $40 each. She remembers recognizing even then the opportunity small places outside the mainstream surfing industry like Blown Out provided neighborhood kids of lesser means.

“My mom was a very poor single mother who probably couldn’t have afforded new suits for us,” said the Live Oak native. “Just the fact we were able to experience the ocean because of her generosity stuck with me.”

The Carter family.
(Via Ishtar Carter)

So after getting through COVID-19 shutdown as a more-bonded family, the Carters learned that Diane and her husband, Don, were finally going to sell the business and retire. Ishtar said they felt as though they had found the perfect opportunity to take over a business they knew, loved and felt morally aligned with.

“It gave us the opportunity that we had wanted,” she said. “To provide our children, and the whole community, a chance to develop a love of the ocean and be able to afford it. To continue on the legacy that Diane and Don created.”

Diane and Don live right around the corner still and pop in often. “We’ve formed such a close bond with them,” Ishtar said.

Though the building itself is not a historical landmark, and gets no special protection, the site is registered with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

A plaque sits above the door, denoting it as the location where Freeline Surfboards, one of Santa Cruz’s original brands, was started by John Mel back in 1969. For a moment, Westside legend Doug Haut is said to have used that space as well.

Former Blown Out owners Don and Diane Berkhemer with new owners Ishtar and Oliver Carter.
(Via Ishtar Carter)

Haut’s notoriety was formed on the other side of town, and Mel’s shop has been around the corner on 41st Avenue for decades now. But the history at 32nd Avenue and Portola Drive will not soon be forgotten, regardless of what the future holds there.

“There’s been a lot of good surfing juju at the corner,” Ishtar said.

Have thoughts on the issues going on at Pleasure Point or elsewhere around Santa Cruz County? We want to hear from you, whether it’s for a followup news story, a letter to the editor or a Community Voices opinion piece. Drop us a note at news@lookoutlocal.com.