The redevelopment of the Santa Cruz Wharf remains in question as a lawsuit, filed Jan. 12, challenges the city’s recently adopted Wharf Master Plan. The city has long contended the wharf is in need of infrastructure updates in light of a changing climate, changes which would only be possible with state funding. 

To secure funding, the city wants to boost the commercial viability of the wharf through the Wharf Master Plan, passed by City Council on Nov. 24, 2020. 

The city’s plan to economically redevelop the wharf as a means to update its infrastructure has been challenged by advocacy group “Don’t Morph the Wharf,” on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed. 

The lawsuit is seeking to enforce a stricter interpretation of California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as it pertains to major changes in the proposed redevelopment. Specifically, the lawsuit calls for the omission of the proposed three-story commercial “Landmark Building” from the plan. It also calls for other “feasible mitigations” that would lessen the aesthetic, recreational, and environmental impacts of new development. 

“It’s always a balance between tourism, making money, and preserving what makes Santa Cruz unique,” said Gillian Greensite, a primary organizer of “Don’t Morph the Wharf.” “People come here because it’s not the same as everywhere else.” 

The Wharf Master Plan

The Wharf Master Plan calls for the construction of three new buildings, a new shopping center, and an expanded public walkway. It also allows for the construction of new boat landings, a redevelopment of the wharf’s entrance and parking lot, and structural repairs to the wharf’s pilings. 

The city estimates structural repairs to the wharf will cost between $12 to 14 million. As of the 2014 engineering report, the economic redevelopment of the wharf is estimated to cost an additional $24 to 29 million.

The motion to pass the Wharf Master Plan and EIR faced opposition from Council Members Brown and Beiers, who supported an amended plan that didn’t include construction of the Landmark Building.

“[It’s] totally out of scale, not necessary. Just walking by it would not be a pleasant experience,” Beiers said. “People hear the lions barking, all kinds of birds, and look at the sea. That should be the experience.”

Ultimately, the proposal to amend the EIR and Master Plan did not pass, and the original EIR and corresponding Master Plan were adopted with only Brown and Beiers in dissent.

The Environmental Impact Report

In the recent lawsuit, Greensite and “Don’t Morph the Wharf” alleged the city’s decision to vote on the EIR and the Master Plan during the pandemic was an attempt to avoid public comment on the proposals. 

Officials familiar with the EIR process maintain that the release of the EIR wasn’t timed in any way.

“That’s not my understanding of how this has played out,” said Ryan Moroney, a Central Coast District Supervisor for the California Coastal Commission. “I’m not aware of any sort of nefarious plot by the city. They took our comments and public comments to heart and then felt the need to prepare a full EIR.” 

According to Greensite and “Don’t Morph the Wharf,” more dialogue regarding the Master Plan and the EIR would have resulted in a more suitable plan and potentially avoided legal action. 

The Brandt-Hawley Law Group, representing “Don’t Morph the Wharf,” stated this criticism in a letter issued to the city on Nov. 9, 2020. The lawsuit at hand echoes these initial concerns, citing that under CEQA potential impacts to existing recreational uses and historic aesthetics need to be avoided if viable alternatives are available. 

“If they did a better job in the first place we wouldn’t have to [litigate],” said Greensite. “That’s the only option when they don’t listen to the public and they present a plan that most people don’t like.”

The Wharf’s Economic Future

City Asset and Development Manager David McCormic maintains that climate change is a primary driver of the wharf’s redevelopment.

“The forces are against the wharf as it is,” McCormic said. “The changing climate and the increased voracity of storms are increasing the pace at which wharf systems are degrading.”

To secure state funding for climate change-related infrastructure updates, the city contends that the wharf needs to remain economically viable. The Master Plan remains the city’s main pitch for re-investment. 

“One of the challenges of public financing for infrastructures is that politicos at the state and federal level don’t tend to support what’s considered deferred maintenance or infrastructure backlogs,” McCormic said. “More often they’re supportive of new projects, things that expand existing facilities or enhance them in some way.”

The city adopted the Master Plan with the hopes of revitalizing the wharf’s ailing finances. In the 2020 fiscal year, the wharf operations ran a deficit of $1,536,083, according to a Nov. 24 presentation by the Santa Cruz Economic Development Department. McCormic said the wharf’s financial success has declined because of a lack of a redevelopment plan. 

But this has been challenged by members of “Don’t Morph the Wharf.”

“Their impetus is to make it into a cash cow,” Greensite said. “It’s to become a platform for recreation that happens to be over water, rather than the historic structure that we know and love.” 

McCormic said the Master Plan remains open to alteration as the city seeks to stay on course with the Wharf’s redevelopment. McCormic reiterated that, as the plan projects 20 to 30 years into the future, flexibility will remain an inherent part of any proposals for the wharf.

The future of the Master Plan remains uncertain in light of the recent lawsuit. 

“It’s a very typical, coastal city difference of opinion,” said Central Coast District Supervisor Ryan Moroney. “There’s definitely a faction of folks in the city that don’t want to see all the change that’s happening, some folks want to modernize things and change them, others want them to stay the same.”