On any given day, you can stroll down the 107-year-old Santa Cruz Wharf and observe people fishing, dining on fish and chips, or visiting the sea lion colony that hangs out underneath.
The 2,745-foot commercial and recreational wharf is the longest wooden pier in the U.S. and welcomes more than 2 million visitors each year. It hosts such annual events as the Aloha Outrigger Races and Woodies on the Wharf, which draws hundreds of old car aficionados each summer.
But the wharf was never designed for all that capacity when it was built in 1914 primarily for commercial purposes, including fishing, and time and the elements have taken a significant toll.
Now, after nearly a decade in the works, a major renovation and repair project is inching closer to a start, thanks in part to a $620,000 federal grant.
Many of the proposed upgrades focus on making the aging wharf more resistant to the impact of climate change, said David McCormic, asset and development manager for the city of Santa Cruz.
McCormic and others have been hard at work on the extensive Santa Cruz Wharf Master Plan, first developed in 2011, which outlines the renovation project. In addition to resiliency, the plan also aims to create more public space and expand access to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
More space, better views
Among other changes, it would create 2.5 more acres of public space, including a new eastern promenade, an amphitheater and a western walkaway designed to provide a 360-degree view of the bay.
City leaders unveiled the plan to the public in 2014 during the wharf’s centennial celebration, after what they said was a huge effort to get input and response from the community and other stakeholders.
However, some community members argue that the city hasn’t done full due diligence when it comes to balancing aesthetic, historic and recreational impacts. A grassroots organization called “Don’t Morph the Wharf” filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this year.
The group contends the proposed changes would dramatically change the wharf’s historic aspects and turn it into something akin to San Francisco’s touristy Pier 39.
“The city of Santa Cruz Wharf Master Plan is not a restoration project,” said Don’t Morph the Wharf member Gillian Greensite. “It’s a makeover of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Other than routine maintenance, most of the proposed changes are highly unpopular with visitors and locals as the many letters and petitions can confirm.”
In the pending suit, Don’t Morph the Wharf contends that “feasible mitigations and viable alternatives can accomplish the city’s fundamental objectives to protect the wharf in the long term, without destroying key historic features and uses that support marine and avian resources and are beloved by Santa Cruz residents and visitors.”
McCormic acknowledged the concerns about historic preservation, but noted, “The wharf has changed so many times — it’s much more about (preserving) its existence.”
Despite public concerns that the plan would remove popular sea lion view platforms, McCormic said the city is committed to maintaining them in some fashion, although details are still to be determined.
More approvals pending
The city has conducted an environmental impact review, but it still needs to go through more reviews and approvals, including by the California Coastal Commission. All of this is not only labor-intensive, but costly, McCormic said, meaning the city needed first to raise money before it could even begin the evaluation and review process.
In May, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded the city $620,000 toward the project, giving it a much needed jumpstart. The city is seeking additional grants from California State Parks to help fund the early-stage projects within the plan.
“An unfortunate reality for the process is that grants for rehab or maintenance of public infrastructure are rare compared to those available for new projects,” McCormic said.
It will be at least two or three years at minimum before construction can begin, and that will need to be scheduled around nesting season for the bay’s endangered seabird populations.
A separate but related project is slated to get started as soon as 2022 — replacing the former Miramar Fish Grotto restaurant, which was torn down in 2018 due to structural damage and disrepair. Those plans are still being finalized but will include a restaurant and likely retail space as well.