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Hit the Beach

[whitespace] By Eric Johnson

THE BEACH AREA/South of Laurel Plan is the most important piece of work Santa Cruz has undertaken since downtown was rebuilt following the earthquake. And this is much more controversial, because it could dramatically change the character of the community. Local politics, aesthetics, economics, justice and power are all at stake.

In the past six months, I've heard several public officials and a couple of business people describe the plan as a "four-legged stool." It's not a very imaginative metaphor, but it has caught on, I'm sure, because of its simplicity. The idea that the massive, complex plan is made up of only four elements is useful--and not entirely wrong.

The proposals that make up the four legs of this stool--upon which the future of the city of Santa Cruz may well rest--can be easily explained:

Boardwalk Expansion:
Santa Cruz's landmark tourist attraction would be allowed to add a couple of acres and build a couple of new rides. Because the Boardwalk is hedged in by Beach Street on one side and the beach on the other, this expansion will require re-routing Third Street, which currently runs out almost to the river mouth.

Convention Center/Hotel:
La Bahia Hotel, now a charmingly shabby relic which has been converted into apartments, would be transformed into a 250-room showpiece of retro-modern design. This would allow the Boardwalk--and the city--to access the year-round convention market. Later phases of the plan would allow for retail expansion in the commercial zone of the Beach Area.

Neighborhood Renewal:
The plan calls for major changes in the residential Beach Flats area, as well as the South of Laurel neighborhood. Included in this leg of the proposal is the construction of low-income housing (financed in part by money from Charles Canfield and his Seaside Company, which owns the Boardwalk). Although only 25 or so homes would actually be destroyed in the Flats, more than 150 low-income units may be converted to other uses.

Transportation Improvements:
The plan calls for the construction of a "remote" parking lot and a shuttle system to bring visitors to the beach. The realignment of Third Street would also allow for the future construction of a bridge across the San Lorenzo River at the bottom of Ocean Street.

THIS IS, of course, a dramatic oversimplification of the 300-plus page proposal. And for many of the current plan's opponents, who may not argue with any of the broad proposals outlined here, the devil is in the details.

At issue presently is an environmental impact report, which was released last month. Such reports are legally required to offer citizens an opportunity to review their findings and respond. While the public comment period is ordinarily 90 days, the City Council decided to limit debate on the Beach Area Plan's EIR to 60 days. It ends May 26.

WHILE POLITICOS talk about this plan as a "stool," they are treating it more like a "wagon." Here's why: the world is filled with three-legged stools, but every wagon has four wheels. And the City Council has decided that all four elements must remain intact.

Some critics like the hotel idea but don't want to see a big new ride at the Boardwalk; others favor only the housing proposals or traffic-abatement plans. While councilmembers stop short of presenting this as an all-or-nothing arrangement, they insist that all four wheels must be in place.

Stretching the analogy, we can look at the two horses that are pulling this wagon. One represents economic development, and the other represents community revitalization. Councilmembers Scott Kennedy and Mike Rotkin, who are heading up the city's efforts, say that for them it is the latter horse that is driving the plan--although the jobs and city revenue will be welcome. Charles Canfield and others in the business community make it quite clear that they are in it for the money--which they point out will benefit the community at large.

It's too much to lay out in a metaphor, or in a single issue of a newspaper.

In coming weeks, Metro Santa Cruz will offer a thorough take on the Beach Area Plan. This week, reporter Mary Spicuzza and photographer Robert Scheer present a glimpse at the community that will be impacted most dramatically by whatever we all decide to do.

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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