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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

La Bahia critics erect their own damn story poles, district parks chief Chet Bardo takes the helm of a leaky boat and the harbor gets a big mop for cleaning up oil spills.

How Poor Is Poor Enough?

Aside from the historic and aesthetic implications of demolishing the La Bahia Apartments to make way for a massive hotel, there is also the issue of finding a new place to live for students who currently live in the old building's 40 rooms.

Under city law, if a building that houses low- or medium-income tenants is demolished, it's up to the guy who brought in the bulldozers to build a replacement structure. The La Bahia Apartments are home to UCSC students nine months out of the year and international students the other three.

The problem is, because these students receive financial help from their parents, they're considered "voluntarily poor." In the eyes of the law, that's not the same as being plain old "poor," so Barry Swenson Builder, the company with the big plans, is not responsible for building other lodgings.

The seeming loophole has given at least one interested party pause and prompted him to vote against the plan to flatten La Bahia until BSB agrees to provide replacement housing for at least some of the tenants.

"La Bahia has been important resource of affordable housing for years and years, and it's being lost," says Santa Cruz planning commissioner David Foster. "I think some of those units should be provided in replacement."

Barry Swenson has spent seven years trying to get his grand hotel on Beach Street built. In 2003 a plan was approved to build a scaled-down version of the current seven-story plan and a tally was taken of the tenants in the building. Seven were deemed "low or moderate income households."

Those seven households are what Foster wants given back, even though current tallies show 100 percent students living at La Bahia.

"It's definitely a little confusing," says senior planner Don Lauritson. "It will ultimately be up to the City Council if they want to require Barry Swenson to replace the housing. They don't have to as it stands now."

Deciding if poor students are equal in poverty to other poor people will be one more big decision for the City Council at its Sept. 9 meeting. For the record, Nu_z went to college and remembers buying the same ramen noodles and potato bags as all the other "qualified" poor people.

How High Is Too High?

Speaking of La Bahia, critics of the project have scheduled a rally to shore up opposition to Barry Swenson's grand plan. The event will kick off Thursday, Aug. 21, at 5:30pm at the beach in front of La Bahia and will feature irked union workers, peeved neighbors and slighted city commissioners.

The rally is being hosted by the Build A Better La Bahia Coalition, a local protest group whose slogan is "build a great hotel, not just a great big one." Group spokesman Ned Van Valkenburgh said a wide variety of people are unhappy about the seven-story hotel and want a scaled-back version.

There are other demands, as well. One is a commitment to union labor--something Barry Swenson has been hesitant to make. Jesse Nickell, vice president at BSB and the local face of the Bay Area development mogul, said he's met several times with construction unions and a service industry union but has hit a brick wall each time.

"We kept coming back to the same deal points, but no progress was made," says Nickell. "With the construction unions we've agreed on a deal for 60 percent of hard costs going to unions, but they want 100 percent. I don't have anything against unions, except when their attitude is negative--and they haven't been very nice in public."

Nickell said he thinks it's still possible for a union deal to be worked out for both the construction and operation of the hotel but felt some of the unions had tried to bully the company into compliance.

Meanwhile, hotel workers union UNITE HERE spokesman Mark Weller counters that an agreement for union labor is the least BSB could do, since it's asking for dozens of "special favors" from the City Council and community.

"Our coalition is concerned that here's a project that is in violation of nearly every one of Santa Cruz's values," says Weller. "They're asking for changes in height limits, changes in zoning plans and changes in costal plans. Barry Swenson is basically thumbing its nose at the values of our community."

Nu_z could cut the tension between project supporters and opponents with a knife--but we wouldn't want anyone involved getting a hold of a sharp object. Especially since there will be helium-filled balloons around serving a noble purpose.

At Thursday's rally, the Build a Better La Bahia Coalition will attempt to physically illustrate how tall the building would be using balloons on strings. They're also praying for no wind.

The move comes in response to Barry Swenson Builder's reluctance to use story poles to show how tall the project will be (up to 70 feet from the sidewalk in some cases). Consisting of little more than long poles with bright balls on the end, story poles are erected--usually in smaller projects--to be a visual representation of a proposed project's height.

Barry Swenson contends that building the story poles is just too difficult (because, well, they're too tall) and has stood behind the digital representations used in its PowerPoint demonstrations shown at City Council meetings and available online.

"Building story poles would not work. The logistics are just too difficult. I mean, how would you do it?" says Nickell. "And even if they were built, they wouldn't be as good as digital projections."

"It seems like Barry Swenson's favorite word is 'impossible,'" Weller responds. "They can't possibly show story poles, they can't possibly sign union contacts, they can't possibly build a smaller hotel. They seem to always have a million excuses."

No Walk in the Park

Nu_z wouldn't trade places with Chet Bardo. The new superintendent of the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks is in charge of 30 parks (more than any other district) in need of $1 million in repairs. Staff levels are down, but with everyone spooked by high gas prices, the number of visitors is up as vacationers stick close to home. And the state budget is, of course, in a shambles.

Given these facts, Nu_z would have expected to see Bardo drowning his sorrows at the free wine table at the Aug. 14 reception at the Henry Cowell Visitors Center officially welcoming him to the job. But no. As he chatted with parks enthusiasts, Bardo radiated equanimity.

"Our people are just experts at this," he explained later. "If it's Band-Aids and baling wire, they find a way to figure it out."

To illustrate, Bardo cited statewide figures from last year. "We had almost a million hours in service from volunteers," he said. "Economically, that's worth 18 to 19 million [dollars]. That's huge! But at the same time, the permanent folks managing programs and volunteers, they decreased 8 or 9 percent. And at the same time, program delivery went up 24 percent. Figure that out! People are creative."

How about a little less mandatory creativity and a little more funding? Nu_z waits with bated breath to see what becomes of Assemblymember John Laird's parks funding proposal. His plan to add $10 to every Californian's vehicle license fee would put $280 million a year into state parks' coffers and wipe out the entrance fee to boot. According to a Laird spokesman it will either be folded into the budget currently being negotiated or presented as a bill. Either way, we'll know next week.

Greasy Grant for Harbor

The sight of oil-soaked birds and greasy beaches is a sight Americans unfortunately know well. And nearly a year after the Cosco Busan leaked 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay, the Santa Cruz Harbor got a much-needed weapon against potential oil spills. Thanks to a $27,300 grant from the Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the harbor is now equipped with a mobile oil spill containment unit.

The 1,000 feet of containment boom, absorbent pads, anchors and buoys all fit nicely into a trailer that can be towed to any shoreline in danger of a spill's flowing muck. The DFG, the Santa Cruz Fire Department and Santa Cruz Police showed off the new toys at the Harbor on Aug. 15. Using a small boat, officers and firefighters practiced extending the long orange barrier in the water while flocks of pelicans and curious harbor seals kept watch.

"This equipment allows us to respond quickly in the event of an oil spill. The idea is, we could block off the harbor or contain the oil as best we can in the first few hours until a larger cleanup crew could come in. Or in the case of a small sinking ship, we could encircle the wreckage and prevent the spill from spreading," says Port director Rick Smith. "The first two hours [after a spill] are very important."

Aleah Lawrence-Pine and Lauren Gilligan from Save Our Shores were on hand for the demo and said they were glad the city had beefed up its oil doomsday plan. They also talked excitedly about some new organic technology being used by UC-Berkeley students to battle spreading oil slicks.

"There are researchers who lay hair mats down on the oil which have mushrooms growing on them," says Lawrence-Pine. "The hair sucks up the oil and the mushrooms absorb it. I'd like to see some of these ideas used here someday."

For DFG environmental scientist Josh Curtis, the new equipment is better than nothing.

"Any sort of oil protection can fail," says Curtis. "But even the most basic protection is crucial immediately after a spill. We all just hope we'll never have to use it."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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