Expansion plans for Santa Cruz's beach boardwalk amusement park have been on a roller coaster ride for months, with election results in November's city council races expected to offer a public referendum on the city council's recent decision to limit the huge plan.
The proposed expansion had divided the coastal town, which has never embraced growth and is known for its environmental, non-traditional bent. When the expansion plan was first introduced, a majority on the progressives on the city council thought they'd found a way to let the boardwalk expand while improving housing for residents and finding additional revenues for the city. But when strong public opposition surfaced, the plans were significantly changed.
Under the original proposal, the Santa Cruz Seaside Co., owners of the historic amusement park, planned a 1.4 acre expansion of the 12-acre boardwalk, a 225,000- square foot shopping center, realignment of a street, and construction of a parking garage and a nature center, with the city condemning residential property nearby. The Seaside Co. was supposed to contribute money or land toward construction of affordable housing, and provide public improvements such as bicycle paths. Additionally, a traffic shuttle from downtown was planned.
Before the plan had reached the council, the project had already been reduced in size: the shopping center would have only 125,000 square feet, and there would be no parking garage or nature center.
But under the plan unanimously adopted by the seven-member city council in October, most of the major commercial components of the plan were dropped. The only items approved was construction of a 275-room hotel conference center and up to 28 units of low-income housing and public improvements such as building rehabilitiation. A traffic shuttle is still planned, but funding for it and other improvements will have to come from other sources.
Opposition to the expansion ran 2 to 1 at public hearings, according to Mayor Celia Scott, who criticized the expansion for the traffic it would create and for the removal of homes.
"The community had a very strong history of consensus building after the earthquake," which destroyed the city's downtown, said Planning and Community Development Director Eileen Fogarty. But that concensus wasn't reached on the boardwalk plan, and now the Fogarty's department will continue to meet with citizens to develop a plan that meets their approval.
One factor that may have galvanized that opposition was construction earlier this year of a power center on the eastern entrance to the city, according to activist Doug Rand, a leader of Beach Area Working Group, which opposed the amusement park's expansion.
In many cities, construction of boxy Petsmart and Office Max buildings doesn't ruffle many feathers. But in Santa Cruz, "It's like a Trojan horse coming over the hill from San Jose," he said.
The original boardwalk plan would have meant the destruction of 19 apartments in therundown Beach Flats neighborhood. A total of 48 people would have been removed from their homes.
The boardwalk is a major source of income to the city. contributing $500,000 in parking and admissions tax revenue each year plus tax increment money for redevelopment projects. It drew 3.2 million visitors last year, making it the 14th most visited attraction in the nation, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Ted Whiting II, vice president of operations for the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, said he was disappointed by the city council's decision, but the company would take "a wait and see" approach.
Whiting said each element of the plan would have gotten its own discretionary review before permits were issued. The total plan encompassed 205 acres.
"It was an area plan, he said. "No one project was approved. People didn't understand that."
The plan was drawn up after numerous public hearings and meetings. But Mayor Scott and others said the meetings didn't take community concerns into account.
Rand said that four members of the council who had originally backed the beach plan "betrayed their own electorate."
The final decision on the beach plan was made at the council's October 6 meeting amidst talk of a referendum, and bilingual signs raised against the plan. Many of the residents of Beach Flats are Latino.
Rand said that opponents was pleased that the boardwalk expansion and realignment of Third Street were removed from the plan. There are "mixed feelings, " he said, on the hotel/conference center, which will have "tremendous impact on the beach area."
The new hotel will retain some of the components of the historic Bahia Hotel, which is currently on the site and dates to the 1920s.
Rand, a longtime community activist, said that the goals of revitalizing the area "are admirable." But with a plan that wiped out the Beach Flats neighborhood, he said, "we couldn't identify the public benefit here."
Election results in November will serve as a referendum on the plan, he said. Three opponents of the plan are running for the city council. He said that opponents of the beach plan are still considering legal action to challenge the plan's EIR.
While deciding on the boardwalk's future, the Santa Cruz City Council also voted in October to accept a settlement with the Seaside Co. on some acreage near the boardwalk. Rand said that settlement might also be the subject of a legal challenge.
At issue is about four acres of land along the San Lorenzo River, which ends at the boardwalk. The land is currently used for parking, but a portion may be turned into a park under the settlement.
An opponent of the boardwalk expansion plan wrote to the State Lands Commission last year that the Seaside Company was using tidelands as a parking lot, and that the land belonged to the public.
"The whole area has been underwater and is...public tideland," Rand said. Under the state constitution and the city charter, he said, the land is supposed to be public.
The Lands Commission determined that actual ownership of the site was a murky question. Under a settlement which the council approved in October on a 4-2 vote, the state gets 20 % of the land, which will then be leased to the city. Seaside gets clear title to the rest.
Ted Whiting II, Vice President, Santa Cruz Seaside Company, (831) 423-559.
Doug Rand, Beach Area Working Group, (831) 458-3434.
Celia Scott, Mayor, (831) 429-3540.
Eileen Fogarty, Planning and Community Development Director, (831)429-3555.