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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Making Waves: To kill the MetroBase project, a 20-acre bus yard next to the Lipton Tea plant, Westside residents and frontman Mark Primack are fighting to save a stream running through the empty lot.

Divided We Stand

Santa Cruz environmentalists can't seem to agree on much of anything these days

By Jessica Lyons

A LONE CYCLIST STOOD in the back of the room, helmet in hand, at a recent Santa Cruz City Transportation Commission meeting. Greatly outnumbered by several "Friends of Arana Gulch," the cyclist didn't speak. He just stood there, listening to angry "Friends" griping about "selfish" cyclists who want to "pave" a 12-foot-wide bike path through the Eastside meadow. After the meeting, the cyclist rode home in the rain. But not before enduring a few taunts.

"You're not a real environmentalist," screamed one "friend," threatening, literally, to pound his point into the peddler.

Saving the planet seems to be increasingly difficult these days. As if the greenhouse effect isn't enough of a villain, environmentalists have an additional foe to wage war against. The new enemy is other environmentalists.

Cases in point: the recent struggles to build a bus yard on the Westside of Santa Cruz, and the fight over a proposed bike path through the Eastside's Arana Gulch green belt.

The arguments and the name-calling are generally the same in both controversies. Bus and bike supporters are "destroying Santa Cruz," inviting pollution and blight into its neighborhoods. They are not green enough. The other camp, fighting to keep buses and bikes out of their backyards, are "NIMBYs," using scare tactics to silence the opposition. They are "anti-alternative transportation" and "short-sighted."

In reality, no one is saying that buses and bikes are bad things. But mass transit and alternative-transportation supporters and the conservationists who oppose their plans both seem to be missing two key points: a map of where they are headed and the cohesion to get there together.

Take for example a recent Santa Cruz City Council meeting at which opponents of the Arana Gulch bike path charged cyclists with wanting to "clear-cut" the 63-acre green belt to build a "bike freeway." The "Friends," apparently, are not above hyperbolic accusations.

But if an Earth Day attack is any indication, bike activists are equally pumped up. A great chasm has grown between erstwhile allies, says Ron Goodman, director of the cycling activist group People Power.

"On Earth Day, I heard a story about a longtime environmentalist who was physically attacked by someone who supported a bike path through Arana Gulch," Goodman says. "There are a lot of people who are very angry at People Power, and a lot of People Power people who are very angry at other organizations. There're bicyclists who hate bicyclists. It has created a lot of divisiveness because there're a lot of people whose hearts are in the same place. We don't want to place a strain on the environment--it's just two different approaches."

True enough, but it doesn't solve the immediate problems for the environmental movement. In Santa Cruz, competing environmentalists, both claiming the health of Mother Earth as their cause, have brought progress on alternative transportation and mass transit in the county to a standstill.

Rock the Bus

ON THE WESTSIDE, battle lines have been drawn over a bus center. The so-called MetroBase project, the Metro Transit District's proposed 20-acre bus center, is slated to house fueling centers, maintenance and repair shops and upward of 200 buses. The center will also include administrative offices and parking for 325 employees, which has drawn particular criticism from opponents who consider the offices and parking unnecessary.

In 1995, when the district hired consulting firm Gannet Fleming to scout out a replacement home for the district's seven bus maintenance and parking facilities, consultants looked for a vacant plot of industrially zoned land close to freeways, rail lines and major arterials that didn't require relocating existing homes or businesses.

Most important, the plot had to be big--20 acres, according to Transit District GM Les White (including the space needed for parking and offices). The search yielded one prime spot, an empty lot on Delaware Avenue next to and owned by the Lipton Tea Co. plant.

"This is the ideal site," says Santa Cruz City Councilmember Mike Rotkin, who sits on the Metro Transit Board.

Transit officials estimate that a consolidated Westside MetroBase would mean $2 million in annual savings because of fewer deadhead buses, less labor and no leases or rent. Currently, the transit district owns only two of its seven bus facilities. The other five are rented. A Westside center would allow the district to own the property and buildings. Furthermore, a consolidated bus yard will reduce repetitive staffing, meaning the district can hire fewer employees and shell out less cash, according to White.

But the district failed to anticipate an important factor in the decision: a highly organized Westside community that would fight to keep the bus yard out of the neighborhood.

"My major worry is degradation of our neighborhoods and our community," says Westside resident Robert Blitzer. "Nobody is anti-bus here. We all support an expanded bus service, but we've got to think about the long-term effects of having something like [MetroBase] in the neighborhood. This means 200 buses coming and going every day, more cars driving through Mission Street and the unmitigable noise and pollution from the MetroBase itself would contribute to what type of businesses would follow. I don't think we would have many more artists and high-tech businesses attracted to it. It would be more truck yards and heavy industries."

Indeed, Westside residents have more than their share of reasons to want MetroBase out--noise from some 360 to 400 bus trips, leaving the lot in the wee hours of the morning and returning after dark, employees clogging residential streets driving to and from work, diesel fumes for the next 10 years prior to the state-mandated conversion to natural gas, and maybe a drop or two of old-fashioned NIMBY impulses.

The lot is surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods, it's a block from three public schools on Swift Street and fewer than 1,000 feet from Natural Bridges State Beach. It's also bordered by high-tech offices, research and development facilities, a winery and artist studios and workshops.

And White admits that additional cars and buses commuting on Mission Street will add to traffic problems on a clogged street--albeit one that is being widened.

There is an alternative proposal that the Westside residents say is a better idea--putting a clustered bus facility on several pieces of property in the Harvey West Park, totaling 14 acres.

According to the transit district, a Harvey West center would save the district $1.8 million annually--only $200,000 less per year than the Westside land.

Even the bus drivers' union agrees that the Westside may not be such a hot spot for a bus yard. "I think MetroBase would work on the Westside," says Ian McFadden, general chairman of United Transportation Union Local 23. "But our perspective is: would the MetroBase be better located in Harvey West Park? Absolutely."

But building a MetroBase center in Harvey West would require relocating existing residents and businesses, a process that has its difficulties as well. In addition, the land is privately held.

"Will [the City Council] be willing to condemn the property if the owner is not willing to sell?" White asks. The council just might, given the fact that both Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt and Santa Cruz Mayor Keith Sugar have denounced the proposed Westside location.

Battle of the Buses

INDEED, EVERY SANTA CRUZ politico has strong feelings one way or the other about a Westside bus center--which will make for an interesting City Council election in November.

"The progressives have been the majority in Santa Cruz since 1981. We've sort of dominated elections here primarily because we've put together a coalition that represents the vast majority of people who live here--labor-movement supporters, neighborhood activists, environmentalists and students--and when the [candidate supports issues] of concern to these four groups, you win elections," Rotkin says.

After an election, however, things change. The coalition that elected the candidate starts to fall apart because it no longer has a greater enemy to rally against. Suddenly factionalism results.

Four council seats--a majority--are open this year, and according to some Santa Cruzans, there's no way a candidate running on a pro-MetroBase platform can win. Westsiders will ban together, they say, and lobby for four council members who favor an alternative location for the bus yard.

"It becomes a political minefield for anybody who is in favor of [a Westside MetroBase], because they are not going to stand a chance of getting elected," Blitzer asserts.

Some also say that opposition to MetroBase lends added impetus to a measure likely to be on the November ballot--and generally opposed by local progressives.

The measure would authorize district elections and give the Westside its own representative on the City Council in the future. Westsiders say the current council has ignored their pleas to find a new home for the bus yard. They say they are left out of the political loop and that district elections are the solution. Others argue that district elections would also create six out of seven districts in which issues like Metrobase would not be a political factor--which in the long run would work to the disadvantage of neighborhood-based activism.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Bus and Battle LInes: The Metro Transit District can't expand its bus service without a new facility to accommodate upward of 200 natural gas-powered buses, says transit district GM Les White.

The current progressive majority on the council has been supportive of MetroBase thus far. Three council members--Rotkin, Katherine Beiers and Tim Fitzmaurice--sit on the Metro Transit Board. While it is unlikely that progressives will lose the majority vote this November (Sugar, Fitzmaurice and Christopher Krohn, the most liberal members on the council, are not up for re-election), district elections, if approved, may sound the death knell for the progressive majority.

"In a lot of ways, the MetroBase issue has called into question the whole issue of machine politics in Santa Cruz and has made district elections look very attractive to people on the Westside--those are two major effects of this," says Mark Primack, an ex-member of the city's Zoning Board and the frontman for opposition to MetroBase. "People are very wary now of just putting all our confidence in a slate of candidates who are not necessarily responsive to people in their neighborhoods."

Sink or Swim

DESPITE ALL THE POLITICAL huffing and puffing, it may turn out to be a simple waterway running through the middle of the empty lot that keeps the buses out of the Westside.

A city ordinance prohibits development within 100 feet of a stream. According to previous environmental impact reports, however, the channel is a ditch, not a stream. City officials say the Lipton-property waterway doesn't support riparian life and therefore does not require any special protection.

Westside neighbors counter that the reason for this is that Lipton employees have been spraying the channel with industrial-strength herbicide.

There's not room for a bus yard and the stream, say transit officials. And unless the channel is relocated the district will look elsewhere, White says. In March, the Santa Cruz City Council voted six to one to move the man-made waterway (which was dug in the early 1900s). Mayor Keith Sugar cast the lone dissenting vote.

In a last-ditch effort to save the stream, a group of Westside residents filed a lawsuit against the city and Lipton, Inc. According to Alexander Henson, a Carmel environmental lawyer, the council's decision violated state environmental laws. The lawsuit demands that Lipton conduct a full environmental review before moving the channel.

Residents have also appealed the council's move to the California Coastal Commission.

In the first week of June, the commission will decide whether or not to take jurisdiction over the project. The commission's decision may leave the bus yard dead in its tracks.

"Very frankly, I can't see why proceeding with this site is viable at this time," says Wormhoudt. "There's been such a demonstrated outpouring of concern that the neighbors are going to be absolutely vigilant, and given the fall election, I can't imagine any city council approving this project. And then it also depends on how successful the challengers are in convincing the Coastal Commission to take jurisdiction or how successful the litigation is. If either of those two things happen, that's the end of discussion."

White says that the transit board is likely to recommend an alternate site at its June meeting. He anticipates it will be in the Harvey West area. But the Westside neighbors aren't taking any chances.

"We will keep up the fight until the reality is that the MetroBase is located elsewhere," Blitzer says.

Paved Paradise

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN, bike-path opponents are threatening similar measures to keep a bike path off of the Arana Gulch greenbelt.

The project at stake is an 8- to 12-foot wide bike path through the park that would be wide enough for two-way bike and pedestrian traffic, and emergency vehicles. It also includes a 360-foot bridge across Hagemann Gulch and either a 130-foot or a 740-foot bridge across Arana Creek.

On May 9, the Santa Cruz City Council voted 4 to 2 to approve an additional $40,000 necessary to complete the project's EIR. Bike-path supporters, however, still have several roadblocks to clear.

Currently, two different designs for the bike path are on the table.

The more direct route proposes a 3,000-foot-long trail creating a virtually straight path across Arana Gulch. The eastern end of the pathway begins at the Brommer Street/Seventh Avenue intersection. A 10-foot-wide, 740-foot-long elevated bridge crosses Arana Gulch, returning to the ground in the green belt. The path continues west, crosses Hagemann Gulch with another 220-foot-long elevated bridge, and ends at Broadway.

Proposal No. 2 shows a shorter elevated bridge across Arana Gulch. The 3,160-foot long path follows the contours of the meadow, creating less of a visual impact. Some cyclists worry this longer, steeper, less direct route will mean a longer cross-county commute.

This path begins at Brommer Street and Seventh Avenue, follows the Harbor Access Road to the entrance of the Upper Harbor and continues along Harbor Access Drive for about 700 feet. A 130-foot-long bridge crosses Arana Gulch before returning to the greenbelt and crossing Hagemann Gulch with a 220-foot long elevated bridge.

The bike path has been pared down significantly--it originated as a 1960s plan for a four-lane road connecting Brommer Street and Broadway, creating a direct east-west link between the city and midcounty. Critics applauded the City Council's 1992 decision to designate the 30-years-in-the-making connection as a bicycle/pedestrian path only. But nearly a decade later, some are having a change of heart.

Road Blocks

'THERE ARE SEVERAL potential lawsuits here," explains Patricia Matejcek, executive director of the Santa Cruz branch of the Sierra Club. "It's a violation of the endangered species act, the coastal zone permit process, CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] and the city's master plan. Between the federal government, the Coastal Commission, the state and the city, that's enough to move this timetable into the next millennium."

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Field of Dreams: Friends of Arana Gulch's Patricia Matejcek says the city can expect a lawsuit if the Santa Cruz City Council approves a bike path through the open meadow.

The 63-acre greenbelt is home to nesting red-tailed hawks, the threatened Santa Cruz tar plant and red-legged frog, the endangered tidewater gobies, rare snakes, heritage trees, great blue herons and migrating steelhead.

A bike path would cut down heritage trees, and opponents say it also threatens the tar plant and other plants and animals. Mitigation measures suggested by the project's environmental review include revegetation, planning construction around breeding seasons and avoiding sensitive areas altogether.

Because the two proposed bike paths do come close to two of the four tar plant colonies, there will undoubtedly be some effect on the plants. New weeds and human trash may be introduced to the colonies. City officials say they will take every step possible to mitigate these effects, including surveying the colonies, mowing and prescribed burning (stimulating growth and recovery), and temporarily closing the path if necessary.

And although replacement trees will be planted, six or seven heritage trees will be cut down.

But opponents say mitigation measures are not enough, and that a master plan for Arana Gulch should be completed before the city starts building a bike path.

During one of the few recent sunny afternoons, city associate transportation planner Ted Lopez and I walk down one of the well-trodden foot trails winding through Arana Gulch. Wild grasses and plants cover the tree-shaded terrain. We pass two women walking in front of us. A couple hundred feet away, two cyclists ride through the open field. A man walks toward us, his unleashed dog running through the brush. This is the pristine open space in question.

"Would you like to sign a petition to save Arana Gulch?" he asks us, rattling off the plants and animals threatened by the bike path--and through which his unleashed dog was at that moment romping. We decline.

"What about the environmental damage his dog causes, uprooting plants, running off leash?" Lopez asks. Indeed, despite a sign at the head of the gulch asking people to keep their dogs leashed, the rule is more observed in the breach, it appears to us.

On the other hand, opponents are quick to point out the city's shortcomings. The city's study undercounted wildlife and doesn't provide sufficient mitigation measures for native species that will undoubtedly be affected, according to opponents. They argue that the concrete and the construction crews will threaten the wildlife and plants native to the gulch, although the city can't break any ground without permits from watchdog agencies, including the California Coastal Commission and the state Department of Fish and Game.

So is a lawsuit inevitable?

"In a New York minute," Matejcek says.

Mayor Keith Sugar became the opposition's newest savior at the May 9 council meeting when he said that the project is as good as dead.

"We know we're not going to build this bike path," he said, pausing long enough for a brief round of applause. Sugar cited the Coastal Act's commitment to "protecting environmentally sensitive habitat" and a recent San Diego lawsuit in which the court ruled against building on environmentally sensitive land.

"You can't do it. It's illegal. We have environmentalists battling environmentalists to solve the problem of too many cars and too little space. You can't save the environment by paving over open space," Sugar suggests.

Some environmentalists say you can do just that.

Spinning Wheels

ACCORDING TO A CITY STUDY, about 1,000 cyclists would use a bike path through Arana Gulch every day. During the height of the "season"--those 260 "sunny" days in the calendar year excluding December, January and February--at least 200 of those are people who currently drive to and from work.

"It means 200 less cars on the road," says Patricia Dellin, deputy director of the county's regional transportation commission. "Any number of cars off the road is significant, and so this would be a good project."

What about a bicycle and pedestrian path adjacent to the Santa Cruz branch rail line or improvements to Soquel Avenue's bike lane? Would they mean a Broadway-Brommer connection is unnecessary?

"We need them all. We need a network of bike paths throughout our county," Dellin says, adding that neither the acquisition of the branch rail line nor subsequent bike/ped path is funded, or designed. The same goes for Soquel Avenue. Furthermore, the three pathways connect different parts of the city and county.

"There are a lot of different things we can do to promote bicycling as a viable alternative, but this bike path [through Arana Gulch] is key. It is very difficult to bicycle from Santa Cruz to the Live Oak area, and this would ease it tremendously."

Opponents, on the other hand, say a bike path paves the way for housing developments, playing fields, a school and a road.

"I'm not anti-bike, I ride my bike everywhere, but you can already get from Broadway to Brommer through four different routes without going through Arana Gulch," says Eastside resident Mary Ann Jauck. "I wouldn't be opposed to a normal, narrow bike path, but this one is 12 feet wide, and there's no one ever out in Arana Gulch as it is. So they may put the bike path in, it will become a situation where no one will use the bike path, so let's turn it into a road."

Long Road Ahead

ULTIMATELY, these two hot-button issues lead to the larger question of what direction the environmental movement will take.
"It's entirely appropriate to encourage about 200 [additional] people a day to ride bikes," says Micah Posner of People Power. "If we were talking about destroying an ecosystem, it might be different, but we are talking about minor damage to Arana Gulch."

"The long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term damage," says cyclist Piet Canin. "This project serves a greater environmental priority. You build a bike path, and for generations to come you are going to be promoting bicycle riding over driving cars. It serves to get more cars off the roads, to reduce air pollution, to reduce water pollution. Cars contribute to the majority of problems that California is facing because of urban sprawl. It's a small step toward reducing pollution."

It's also a small step toward reducing the greenbelt, say conservationists.

"Our expectation is that these [greenbelt lands] are not going to be whittled away," Matejcek says. "Our elected city officials told us they were important to have as buffer zones, as watershed, as habitat. Now, those elected officials have to live up to their promise and protect them"--unless they want to be tarred, feathered and run out of town in November by the same progressives who elected them.

At the May 9 City Council meeting, before the council approved extra funds for the Arana Gulch EIR, Mayor Sugar likened the progressive infighting to "interfamily squabbling."

"Environmentalists are battling environmentalists to solve the problem of too many cars and too little space," Sugar said.

Meanwhile, the progressive movement grinds to a screeching halt.

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From the May 24-31, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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