Santa Cruz’s longest city park is a 5-mile loop that stretches from the Tannery Arts Center in Harvey West all the way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and back again.
It’s the Santa Cruz Riverwalk, and a new city plan lays out a vision for overhauling the greenspace and levy system, bringing in path improvements, lighting upgrades and accessibility changes to comply with the American Disabilities Act. There would be art installations, overlook plazas and garden spaces. In general, the plan focuses on protecting the river’s natural ecosystems, while also addressing public safety concerns. According to a grant proposal for the project, “petty theft, illicit drug use and car break-ins are common within the project area.”
The plans all hinge on an $8.5 million grant that the city of Santa Cruz applied for earlier this year.
“It might sound like a big-budget number, but we’re going to need every penny of it to make the improvements we want to see out there,” says city transportation planner Claire Gallogly (née Fliesler), who helped put together the grant application.
The opportunity arose from Proposition 68, a $4 billion voter-approved 2018 bond initiative aimed largely at supporting equitable access to parks throughout the state. The measure promised funds to parks that benefit lower-income residents, making the Riverwalk plan particularly competitive, supporters say.
“The lowest-income communities are all along the river, so there’s a parks equity component that matters a lot,” says Greg Pepping, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC), a nonprofit that helps steward and advocate for the river.
In fact, 45% of nearby residents live at or below the poverty line, and the median income is about $25,000 lower than the city’s average, according to the grant application filed by the city. Around 13% of people in the area lack access to a vehicle, making Riverwalk paths an important means of transportation.
Path improvements involve basic maintenance, like sealing and repaving, plus making it all look good. “Right now, it resembles more of a maintenance road,” says city park planner Noah Downing. Under the plan, the city would use design features like wayfinding and thematic landscaping to “tell more of a complete story,” he says.
Another key to promoting accessibility on the Riverwalk is what’s known as “centralizing.” That means improving connections to surrounding parks and facing new structures toward the river. Currently, many surrounding businesses face away from the river, which Pepping notes can contribute to a “back-alley” feeling at the Riverwalk.
“We want it to feel like our front yard,” he says.
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Before putting together the proposal, the city held 14 outreach meetings to gather feedback on what the community wanted from the space. Gallogly says one theme that came up over and over again from locals was the desire to feel safe.
To that end, the plan calls for more lighting along the entire 5-mile route, and landscaping that ensures clear sightlines for those walking on the paths. Perhaps most importantly, Gallogly says, the city plans to take a sort of safety-in-numbers approach, by building amenities and creating spaces that will attract more visitors. “People feel safer when they see other people,” she says.
Gallogly adds that attracting more visitors doesn’t mean pushing out the homeless and those who already frequent the levy paths. “This is a public space, and public space means public for everyone, not just one group or another,” she says.
Instead of banishing or punishing anyone, the grant application promises efforts to help people share spaces and interact with one another.
“The Riverwalk itself is located right in the heart of the city. It’s an important north-south connection for walking and biking,” says Downing, the park planner. “But it’s also an area that’s important for fish and wildlife habitat.” Several endangered or threatened species like steelhead trout and western pond turtles call the area home.
Currently, the river is sensitive to polluted runoff, which can harm vulnerable populations.
To combat this problem, the city would add environmental features like swales and rain gardens to absorb runoff before it enters the waterway.
Pepping says the full revitalization plan could take as many as 10 years to implement. The city also recently secured a grant for almost $1 million to improve lighting on the Riverwalk next year.
“The San Lorenzo River goes right through the heart of the community, and some of us really love it and enjoy it,” Pepping says. “One of the challenges is that not enough of the community connects with the river. This is the type of investment that can change that.”
Environmentalists and city employees agree that when it comes to revitalization, beautifying the space is key. “At the end of this project, as you walk along the river, you’ll get to see opportunities to recreate, opportunities to view nature, and a place you can go to spend a bit more time,” says Downing.
The most recent concept plan includes 11 river-themed art pieces, five wayfinding art pieces and four plaza overlook areas. Downing says that art pieces will highlight the cultural and ecological history of the river.
The plan also includes interactive play structures along the Riverwalk area for children. “People are excited about the youth energy at the river. We like to say the kids are an indicator species for the health of this park,” says Pepping, whose work with the CWC helps teach thousands of students about the river each year.
The CWC is also participating in GT’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday fundraising campaign this year to support its San Lorenzo River Health Days.
At the city, Gallogly is “hopeful” about the grant application and eager to hear back this spring. No matter what, the Riverwalk is in for some artistic upgrades.
Earlier this year, the city approved the “Chinatown Bridge Project,” which is slated for completion in October of next year. The project is largely the brainchild of Pepping and community leader George Ow Jr., 76, who lived in Santa Cruz’s last Chinatown, located right next to the San Lorenzo River, during his formative years.
When complete, the project will feature a mosaic of a water dragon atop a 14-foot Chinese archway. Commemorative plaques will provide information about the history of Santa Cruz’s various Chinatowns.
Kathleen Crocetti, lead artist on the project, notes that despite the deep, impactful history of Chinatowns in Santa Cruz, many people don’t even know they existed. “Unless we make some kind of effort to put this history out there in the public eye, we won’t know it happened,” she explains.
Ow, who walks the river several times a week, says he’s excited to celebrate the natural and cultural history of the river through this project, while honoring the spirits of those who inhabited Santa Cruz’s Chinatowns.
“I believe that the spirits of the people who once lived here are still with us, especially the spirits of the people who had hard and disturbed lives,” says Ow. “By remembering them and honoring them, we can kind of placate the spirits of these pioneers.”
For information on how to donate to the Coastal Watershed Council or any of the other 36 nonprofits participating in Santa Cruz Gives, visit santacruzgives.org.
Update 12/25/2019 2:00pm: This story has been updated to correct an error.