Pleasure Point sustains: Neighborhood group celebrates compromises made for Portola Drive’s future growth

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

Though they’re “not gloating,” Save Pleasure Point made enough sensical noise to 1st District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manu Koenig, who helped make the group’s case to the planning department and other supervisors to limit development density on large parcels along the neighborhood’s main commercial artery.

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Neighborhood group Save Pleasure Point scored a major victory this week in its fight to retain the character along the area’s main commercial artery, Portola Drive, as the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan that limits development density.

“But we’re not gloating,” said group leader and longtime Pleasure Point resident Patti Brady. “This was a real united effort based in reality. You drive around here and you see people out in the street talking to their neighbors. This is a real neighborhood.”

As the state makes demands on cities and counties to add housing inventory at a rapid pace, it’s up to citizens and their representatives to work toward compromise to make sure neighborhood character is part of the equation. While other projects, such as 831 Water Street, have left many neighbors feeling unheard and helpless, members of Save Pleasure Point say their efforts — with the assistance of 1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig — showed that the process can work.

The largest victory for the neighborhood of roughly 5,800 was capping density on eight parcels zoned for development, essentially limiting how high new buildings could climb vertically along the street that runs parallel to the popular walking/biking zone atop the cliff and prized surf spots below it a quarter-mile away.

Koenig said his office received “at least 150 emails personally and many more phone calls and physical letters” expressing concern about maxing out density levels.

“It was very clear to me that this was important to many people,” he said.

That maxed-out density was part of the county’s original sustainability update plan, even though it went against recommendations developed during a public input process in 2018 that resulted in a guide called the Pleasure Point Commercial Corridor Vision & Guiding Design Principles.

That’s what got Save Pleasure Point quickly mobilized — getting word about via Nextdoor, Facebook, word of mouth and the local media.

In an opinion piece written for Lookout, a group of residents laid out its concerns: “While we support increased housing projects, we must adamantly oppose this effort to rezone sections of Portola Drive to make it urban residential, flexible high-density housing. That would allow up to 45 units of housing per acre — rather than the current 17.4 units per acre. That is a shocking and highly noticeable change — potentially increasing allowed housing by more than double.”

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

The group lobbied Koenig and county senior planner Stephanie Hansen to cap that number at 30 — still a big increase, but nowhere near the 45 figure.

“Pleasure Point is not urban,” they wrote. “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.”

Brady said the next challenge will be finding developers — such as MidPen Housing, which is building another project in the Live Oak area on Capitola Road — who are interested in affordable projects.

“People have this misconception that we’re a rich neighborhood,” she said. “We’re considered a low-income area. We have 12 mobile-home parks and the average income in 2020 was like $42,000. We’re an economic opportunity zone. Developers tend to say that it doesn’t pencil out, but obviously MidPen has found a way to do it.”

Koenig’s part in pushing through compromise was significant, especially given his early introduction to the neighborhood’s unique nature. He was only a few months into his first term in politics in June 2021, when a “pop-up” road reconfiguration along Portola Drive popped up literally overnight, catching many residents by surprise and spurring a quick and angry revolt.

Vandals sabotaged dividers designed to reroute traffic into one lane and make more space for bikers and walkers — what planners like to call a “road diet.” Images of the vandalism quickly went viral.

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

Brady said she was impressed how Koenig sat in on one of her group’s meetings, listened and took that information back to county planners and ultimately his fellow supervisors.

“His support was big,” she said. “We really want to recognize the work of Manu and Stephanie Hansen and all the others in helping make this compromise.”

But Brady said she believes what swung the pendulum of support was the sheer volume of correspondence that flooded the supervisor’s inbox.

“I’m not so sure he walked out of our meeting convinced, but I think with the swarm of emails supporting our position, he really listened,” she said. “I think he’s learned a lot about Pleasure Point. It’s the kind of place you almost have to live here to really understand it.”

Koenig said it was really helpful that the neighborhood group proposed a compromise instead of just saying no way.

“They acknowledged the need for housing,” he said. “And at the end of the day, the 30 units per acre that they asked for is still a significant amount, especially when the possibility of affordability bonuses is taken into account.”

Koenig, though, said larger compromises might be needed as development plans push forward.

“It’s nice to know that we can have a dialogue and come to a reasonable compromise,” he said. “I hope the idea of a middle ground still holds when tangible changes start to happen and this goes from a theoretical zoning exercise to new buildings going up.”

He said he wants people to understand how dire the need for housing stock is for the quality of life in Santa Cruz County.

“I hear all the time that we don’t have the infrastructure to add more housing, but in reality it’s the opposite: we don’t have enough housing to support our infrastructure,” he said. “Simpkins Swim Center has to close three days a week because we can’t find enough life guards; METRO is modifying its schedule this winter because we don’t have enough bus drivers.

“Women inmates are stuck at Main Jail instead of being able to go to Blaine St minimum security facility because we don’t have enough correctional officers. We have county facilities that are empty because we can’t find staff and we can’t find staff because we don’t have housing. It is going to take continued collaboration to solve this issue.”

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