Move the lighthouse on West Cliff? With possible sea cave collapse, city council looking at alternatives

The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Santa Cruz City Council will discuss preliminary plans for West Cliff Drive on Tuesday, with the impact of this winter’s battering storms on the iconic coastal roadway and what comes next an immediate focus. A draft plan also floats a future study of a sea cave underneath Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which could determine how seriously the city will look at the feasibility of relocating the lighthouse; a leader of resident group Save West Cliff is pushing for action sooner.

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The Santa Cruz City Council will discuss preliminary plans for the future of West Cliff Drive on Tuesday afternoon that could lead to a serious look at whether to relocate the iconic, red brick Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse at Lighthouse Point.

City staff will provide an update to the council on the infrastructure and transportation work underway on West Cliff Drive following the extensive damage caused by a series of atmospheric rivers this winter. That update will include a look at a draft of the “Resilient West Cliff, Accessible to All’’ planning document — a project spearheaded by the city and Sacramento-based climate consultant firm Farallon Strategies — designed to help guide the city’s decision-making for rehabilitating West Cliff over the next three years.

The relentless winter storms caused serious damage and accelerated erosion concerns all along West Cliff Drive, prompting discussions over how to protect the road from future weather impacts.

Among the potential proposals floated in the draft is a geotechnical study, expected to begin in 2026, of a sea cave on the west side of Lighthouse Point. The city has previously conducted studies on this cave in 2006 and 2016 that showed little change in its condition, according to the draft report.

“Although not anticipated, should the study reveal an imminent risk, the City will prioritize evaluation and design of an alternative or the feasibility of relocating the Lighthouse (retreat) in the medium to longer term,” meaning in the next 10-plus years, the draft report says.

City staff were not available for comment regarding how relocation would work and where the lighthouse could be moved. However, the draft plan included in Tuesday’s meeting agenda packet says that city staff don’t expect the next geotechnical study to find that sea caves are at “imminent risk” of collapse.

Al Ramadan, a leader of resident group Save West Cliff, says the city can’t afford to wait three years to study the sea cave. “That cave is now more than 60 feet deep and threatens not just the lighthouse, but the Lighthouse Point as a whole,” he said. “That study needs to be done immediately.”

Ramadan says Save West Cliff will also urge the city council and staff to begin creating a 50-year plan for West Cliff Drive, as it expects the California Coastal Commission to review emergency permits for immediate repairs in the coming weeks.

“We’re running out of time, and we have to get these going before the El Niño hits that’s been brewing in the ocean,” he said, concerned that the possible arrival of an El Niño weather pattern — bringing above-average precipitation along with possible coastal erosion — this year could cause even more catastrophic damage.

Further, the group plans to request that the various federal, state and local agencies in charge of the different sections of what has been dubbed the “West Cliff Recreation Area” — which spans from the municipal wharf to Natural Bridges State Beach — begin working together to address coastal impacts on land and sea. That will require governmental bodies like the City of Santa Cruz Public Works department, California State Parks and even the California Coastal Commission to cooperate and coordinate effectively.

The city is planning to launch a community review of its draft plan, produced in partnership with Farallon Strategies, which touches on a number of other efforts to rehabilitate and strengthen West Cliff Drive. Those efforts include an effort to stabilize damaged areas of the cliff by building infill walls as well as the one-way pilot project that currently spans the westbound stretch of West Cliff Drive between Columbia Drive and Woodrow Avenue. The plan also discusses the traffic data-collection efforts that city staff plan to use to determine next steps for the one-way project.

the damaged section of West Cliff Drive just west of Woodrow Avenue on Santa Cruz's Westside
The damaged section of West Cliff Drive just west of Woodrow Avenue on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
(Will McCahill / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The one-way section of the scenic road has been in place since the January storms, and nearby residents soon began raising concerns about increased traffic on side streets. City staff conducted traffic studies in February, which showed Oxford Way, parallel to West Cliff Drive, seeing 2,100 cars per day, while other side streets such as Alta and Plateau Avenues only saw only 300 cars.

Given the now-heavy usage of Oxford Way, city transportation planner Claire Gallogly told a public meeting in late April that the city planned to convert Oxford Way into a cul-de-sac at the Bethany Curve intersection by the end of May. That move would be intended to cut down on the number of cars using the street as a detour. Now, more intensive data collection is underway to understand the traffic patterns in the area. That includes data about how people use the road, as well as total travel to and from the area.

City staff will provide an update on traffic data collection, including a time frame for the completion of the travel data’s analysis, at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

The entire West Cliff update, including Save West Cliff’s requests, will begin around 2 p.m. Tuesday. Watch the meeting on Zoom here. Or check out the city’s website for other ways to watch the meeting and call in, including live video streamed on the city council’s website, on Community Television of Santa Cruz County and Comcast Channel 25. Members of the public may address the council on the issue, and others, following the consent agenda.