‘Yeah, I’m pretty lucky’: Santa Cruz’s new public works director loves to play where he works

Nathan Nguyen, Santa Cruz's new director of public works
Nathan Nguyen, Santa Cruz’s new director of public works.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nathan Nguyen is the City of Santa Cruz’s new public works director, taking over for the retired Mark Dettle, who held those reins for 21 years. When the new leader isn’t wrangling a complex stable of civic projects, you’ll probably find Nguyen out on one of his many favorite mountain bike trails.

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Nathan Nguyen, the son of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in Live Oak to sell fresh produce and flowers in the early 1980s, has a healthy appreciation for Santa Cruz life.

A Q&A with Nathan Nguyen, Santa Cruz director of public works

From mountain biking — his most passionate out-of-office pursuit — to surfing to kayaking to exploring all the nooks and crannies of this redwoods-meets-Pacific postcard we call home, Nguyen, 42, is a passionate lifelong expert in the utilization of Santa Cruz’s natural habitat.

“This place is so special,” he says. “It has something for everyone.”

Making those types of amazing features accessible to the growing masses of “everyone” looking to partake — now that’s a job for a civil engineer, and it has made for a nice dual-purpose role for Nguyen, the City of Santa Cruz’s new public works director.

It starts out with the easy stuff — a sidewalk-widening project here, an intersection tweak there — and then it gets into the murkier projects that involve a bit more finesse and public collaboration. The things that get the backs of neighbors and business owners up: redirections of traffic, speed limit deviations and other safety-minded adjustments.

In the years leading up to Nguyen’s ascension, he cut his teeth on some of the bigger local initiatives that are close to his two-wheel exploration enthusiast heart: installation of green bike lanes, development of the Branciforte Creek bike and pedestrian bridge and the implementation of the Coastal Rail Trail’s first segments.

Mark Dettle, who recently retired from the position after 21 years, says Nguyen, in his 15 years working with the city, has established himself as “a good leader, listener and collaborator.” And he’ll need all those skills and more to navigate the big projects ahead, from downtown expansion to West Cliff Drive erosion to the Murray Street Bridge renovation.

Nathan Nguyen, Santa Cruz's new director of public works
“It’s a great opportunity for him,” outgoing public works director Mark Dettle says of his replacement, Nathan Nguyen.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s a great opportunity for him and he has a great team to work with,” Dettle said of the job that will pay Nguyen $199,178 annually as he oversees a city department made up of five divisions, comprising some 250 employees.

Public works’ tentacles spring off in many directions: engineering design, traffic engineering and maintenance, stormwater management, street maintenance, resource recovery management, waste reduction programs, wastewater management, flood control and parking control. Nguyen took the time to elaborate a bit more for Lookout readers about who he is and what makes him tick.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: So you grew up in the Live Oak zone.

Nathan Nguyen: Yeah, went to Live Oak Elementary, Del Mar when it was a middle school, and then Harbor High. My parents were the owners of Farm Fresh Produce, which later became Farm Fresh Flowers, on Soquel and 7th. It’s hard to see it gone since none of their kids wanted to take it over, but I have some sweet memories of that place.

Nathan Nguyen and friends on a ride at the Soquel Demonstration State Forest.
(Via Nathan Nguyen)

Lookout: Mountain biking is your passion. Where are your favorite spots to ride?

Nguyen: I mainly ride up at UC, kind of hitting the back side of either Highway 9 or down toward Wilder (Ranch). I like to ride up at Demo (the Soquel Demonstration State Forest). It’s kind of a trek to get up there but I love all three of those trails. The Flow Trail is pretty incredible, like probably the best riding in the Bay Area. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to tell myself I don’t need to send it quite like I used to or do these aggressive drops. It’s not worth it being laid up for a while.

Lookout: My hardcore mountain biker friends scoff, but I’ve been contemplating an e-bike to make exploration up there possible in a timely fashion.

Nathan Nguyen in his happy place.
(Via Nathan Nguyen)

Nguyen: One hundred percent. I definitely love the climb and all that, and I wasn’t on board in the beginning, but the e-bike revolution is happening and I support that. When I was up there on the mountain I used to scoff but now I totally get it. You can go out and explore and I just love to see that people of all ages, sexes, races are getting out there where maybe traditionally it was just who could physically get up there or who could afford it. It’s brought some diversity into the sport, which I appreciate.

Lookout: So after you got a mechanical engineering degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, you started out working in the private sector. Talk about your path to the city.

Nguyen: I started as an engineering tech, doing AutoCAD (computer-aided design), trying to feel out the work. Didn’t really know much about the structure at that time; I was only 27. But I had some really good mentors here at the city. And I just fell in love with the work. I was really happy and proud to do projects in the city that I grew up in and make great improvements around town. There’s no kind of reward like that. Having really good bosses and working on really cool projects, I found I just really had a knack for it and really liked doing it.

Lookout: It’s gotta be cool fixing things in your hometown, but Santa Cruz can also be a tricky environment politically speaking.

Nguyen: Early on, when I was just cutting my teeth, it was small improvement type stuff. But when I moved over to traffic and parking in my later years, there was a certain level of sensitivity in working with those types of projects. Working with the businesses, the residents. You have to have some thick skin, and also a diplomatic way in which you propose a project, looking for consensus-building.

Lookout: When you think of important Santa Cruz projects ahead, it’s hard not to immediately think about West Cliff Drive.

Nguyen: Yeah, it’s obviously an iconic street and resource for the community, as well as visitors that come to our great town. Public works, we’re gonna help manage and evaluate the changes that are happening on West Cliff. We’re trying to make sure that, first and foremost, the public is safe getting around with these events that come up, then also looking towards the future. There’s going to be a lot more public involvement as far as what changes may occur, and when, on West Cliff. Public works, like all the other public servants here at the city, we’re taking in information, analyzing and presenting it to our council and our commissions to give us guidance on how to proceed with the public right away.

A view of the Murray Street Bridge in January 2022.
A view of the Murray Street Bridge in January 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Lookout: The Murray Street Bridge project is a close second and will affect the whole county from a traffic sense. Where does that one stand?

Nguyen: Yeah, that retrofit project to the bridge across the harbor has been on our books for a couple decades now. The project improves the actual bridge by making it wider. But before we can get there, we have to get our permits in place and that has been a challenge. We’re getting closer. I expect to have those permits potentially in place by this month — it may take until early 2023 — but our trajectory is to try to get this project out to bid in the spring. The impacts of the project construction are going to be great throughout the county. We know that Murray Street is part of the east-west veins of our community and so there’ll have to be a coordinated effort. We’ll be working with our regional partners to talk about those direct impacts to the community, which we recognize will be significant taking that bridge out for approximately two years. The likelihood is that we’ll be able to maintain eastbound direction during construction.

Local motorists will soon face a disruptive rehabilitation project on the Murray Street Bridge. The overhaul includes...

Lookout: Maybe the Murray Street closure will encourage more people to ditch the car for a bike. The ongoing work on those rail-trail segments will be a big focus too, right?

Nguyen: My hope is that you’ll see rail trail Segments 8 and 9, which go from the wharf roundabout all the way to 17th Avenue, will be the big active transportation project that is going to crack that nut for the county and the city in connecting these two areas and regions together. We saw that with the construction of the Arana Gulch project maybe a decade ago, connecting Brommer (Street) to Broadway. I expect this to make an even greater of an impact; just having this connection is gonna be vital. My understanding is that they’re moving forward with Segments 10 and 11, too. These will be game-changers for our community. Once-a-lifetime transformative projects.

Lookout: It sounds like you’ve found your dream gig. But with so much on your plate, when do you manage to get out in those redwood canopies?

Nguyen: I try to sneak out for a hot lap at lunch or do it after work. It’s such a special place, and I feel pretty lucky, so I try to take advantage of that. But yeah, I feel fortunate and stoked to be in this position, with a good place to work for, a mission you believe in, a place with some decent pay and a good team around you. When I first started, I wasn’t necessarily aiming for this position. But it’s just an incredible ride, this journey, and I’m really stoked to be here.

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