Will West Cliff sidewalk collapse, continued erosion eventually pave the way for a one-way street?

The collapsed walkway on West Cliff Drive between Woodrow Avenue and Columbia Street.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The collapse of a section of sidewalk along West Cliff Drive last week shows that eroding cliffs pose a danger to roads and walkways along the coastline. Though some projects within the West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan are set for an undertaking, one idea — converting West Cliff Drive to a one-way street — is still just a concept. Could the recent cave-in change that?

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Locals and visitors looking to walk off their Thanksgiving feasts last Friday morning were met with a huge chunk missing from the sidewalk along West Cliff Drive between Columbia Street and Woodrow Avenue.

Josh Spangrud, senior civil engineer with the City of Santa Cruz Public Works department, said he will likely have a plan for the repairs by the end of this year, with construction likely beginning in early 2023. He anticipates a straightforward project that only requires a few weeks’ worth of work.

But aside from the immediate repairs, the sidewalk cave-in has also renewed a focus on a $20 million redevelopment plan the Santa Cruz City Council approved last year to prepare the iconic Westside road for the imminent effects of climate change and hastening coastal erosion. What’s more, the crumbling sidewalk has sparked new discussion about a proposed idea to convert West Cliff Drive into a one-way street as a form of managed retreat.

Incoming Mayor Fred Keeley said the recent incident on West Cliff Drive could turn out to be a “blessing in disguise.”

Though erosion is a natural event, rising sea levels due to climate change paired with further erosion caused by surface runoff only makes that ever-pertinent concern more urgent.

An aerial view of the collapsed walkway.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In April 2021, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously approved the West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan. That plan, which needs to be completed by 2034, would include projects such as installing structures to bolster existing infrastructure known as “cliff armoring,” cave stabilization, stormwater outfall upgrades, restoration and landscaping design standard development.

City Sustainability and Climate Action Manager Tiffany Wise-West, who drafted the plan, said the plan intends to provide enough details for each project for the California Coastal Commission — a state agency focused on protecting and providing coastal access — to approve the entire plan. Then the city would not have to seek individual coastal development permits for each project. Wise-West said the commission has not yet approved the plan.

However, some city officials say that the West Cliff Drive sidewalk collapse could accelerate the start of the projects.

“You’ll probably start hearing some of the projects in this plan getting talked about more,” said Transportation and Public Works Commissioner Kyle Kelley.

“I hope so,” said Transportation and Public Works Commissioner Phil Boutelle. “The concepts look like that’s the West Cliff Drive that I’d like to have.”

Could a one-way West Cliff Drive become a project of its own?

Another concept, still in its early stages of evaluation, could see the city usher in a brand-new look for West Cliff Drive.

That idea involves converting the westbound lane to a one-way street for vehicles and converting the current eastbound lane to a two-way bike path, with the existing sidewalk being strictly a pedestrian walkway. The goal would be to create more room for bikers, joggers and any other form of foot traffic, even with increased erosion. The changes would function as a form of managed retreat — a process to relocate community infrastructure away from coastlines and other environmentally sensitive areas.

In this case, managed retreat would be modifying West Cliff Drive with the understanding that erosion is unavoidable.

“It means basically letting the ocean do what it’s going to do and accepting the fact that the coastline is going to continue to erode,” said Spangrud. “It’s planning for that eventuality instead of working reactively like we are now.”

This vision remains just a concept and is not a fully formed project in the adaptation plan, as the city is continuing to evaluate its feasibility.

“It’s something we’ve committed to continue to evaluate through our community engagement and technical analyses,” said Wise-West. “It’s a big misconception in our community that it’s something that the city has definitive plans towards, and that is not the case right now.”

That said, the recent cave-in could serve as an opportunity to further focus on these changes.

Aerial view 2
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“There are certain triggers for coastal climate adaptation, and now all of a sudden we’ve got a trigger in front of us,” said Boutelle.

Boutelle said he likes the similar changes to East Cliff Drive — such as limiting traffic to one-way, providing a spacious walkway and bike path and stabilizing the cliffs — and wishes to see how it would play out on West Cliff, even if it has to start out as limited to one section of the road.

“[The East Cliff Drive changes] are pretty fantastic, and I’d love to see us try that on West Cliff Drive,” he said. “We’ve got this opportunity today to give it a try for a short section.”

Keeley said that beyond the emergency repair, questions remain over how the California Coastal Commission will view the growing issue of erosion along West Cliff Drive; the commission has supported a managed retreat strategy. “If that [cliff armoring] policy is inflexible,” Keeley said, “then discussions have to begin about one-way traffic on West Cliff Drive.”

The separation of the walkway and the bike lane could give both pedestrians and cyclists the space they want while also addressing the effects of erosion — and symbolize Santa Cruz moving toward a model of increased walkability and bikeability that city and county leaders have recommended for other projects.

“This is a combination of community wants, needs and concerns,” said Kelley. “So we can plan to do a managed retreat, and also maintain and improve coastal access in these ways.”

Wise-West notes that in order for the idea to become a project, it would require a community consensus — which means much more community input.

“Some people might be inconvenienced by it and some people will be delighted by it,” said Kelley. “We have to pick what’s probably going to be the best option given the amount of resources that we have.”

Christopher Neely contributed to this report.


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