.The Wharf’s Controversy

Why the city wants to upgrade the wharf, and why one group is fighting to maintain the status quo

After years of debate and litigation, the city is trying once again to expand the wharf—but one group continues to try and halt plans for proposed changes.

Local environmental group Don’t Morph the Wharf has been fighting against the city of Santa Cruz’s plans to expand and upgrade the Municipal Wharf since 2016. The group filed a lawsuit against the city in 2022, saying its plans for the Wharf failed to acknowledge potential environmental consequences—a claim former Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick ruled in favor of.

In 2022, Burdick ruled that the plan did not meet certain requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The city updated its plan, and on Tuesday, staff presented a new version of the Wharf Master Plan to the Santa Cruz City Council, claiming to have addressed the judge’s concerns. 

The disputes over the future of the Wharf lie in what the Wharf is understood to be. The city sees the wharf as ever-changing: a terminus for timber and then a hub for fishing, before organically transitioning into restaurants and parking. The wharf is a place of business and potential earnings for the city. In other words, the form of the wharf should match its current function as a major recreation destination in the region.

But the group Don’t Morph the Wharf sees the historic pier as fundamentally a public resource and a piece of history—the group hopes to preserve the iconic wharf, a semblance of Santa Cruz’s history that dates back decades. After the judge’s ruling, the group believes there are risks associated with other parts of the plan, particularly the proposed Western Walkway, which the group said could pose a risk to pedestrians and the wharf itself.

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In the past decade, the two visions have crashed into each other, delaying progress—which the city said comes at the expense of the wharf’s infrastructure. 

The Case For The Western Walkway 

Since it was first proposed in 2011 after a tsunami damaged the Santa Cruz Harbor, the Wharf Master Plan hasn’t progressed. Although approved in 2020 by the city council in a 5-2 vote, movement on the plan was halted in 2022, and the delay of the project has potentially cost the wharf grant money in a time when the city won millions for other transit and housing projects, according to McCormic.

State agencies are prohibited from funding projects with an unapproved Environmental Impact Report—the same goes for federal funding. Once the city and the Coastal Commission approve the plan’s EIR, the city can seek out funding to build the different proposals, according to McCormic. 

The city argues that the ‘Western Walkway’ outlined in the Wharf Master Plan would allow the city to replace the old pilings under restaurants, rather than waiting for the pilings to be demolished by natural disasters. The path would encircle the wharf in shorter pilings, 8 ft. below the restaurants, and also act as a “fender” against storms and waves, according to McCormic.

“The wharf widening is intended to wrap the existing older wharf in a defensive layer of infrastructure,” said McCormic.

Recent storm damage done to the end of the wharf on Dec. 28 shows why the delay of the plan has been costly, according to McCormic.

On that day, at least two pilings were destroyed under the Dolphin Restaurant, which had already been missing an additional two. The area around the eatery is where some of the wharf’s oldest structures are still in use, and the area has not been worked on since the sea lion viewing holes were added in the 1960’s, McCormic said.

On average, the city replaces 30 pilings annually: 18 were lost in the January storms of last year

This would change if the Western Walkway was built, according to McCormic.

Don’t Morph the Wharf’s Case

Gillian Greensite of Don’t Morph the Wharf has led the charge against the city’s entire project for the wharf since 2016. 

After judge Burdick ruled in favor of the group’s environmental concerns, Greensite said the focus is now on preserving the historical pier from what she sees as a “very poorly thought out” Western Walkway.

“That is illogical,” said Greensite about the city’s claims that the Western Walk will protect the wharf. “Instead of rolling under the wharf it will hit this lower structure and send spray flying with all the debris that is in the spray and above the walkway are the restaurants with plate glass windows,” Greensite said.

The wharf was deemed in good condition in a 2014 engineering report, and it has survived huge storms for over a century with its sleek design that allows waves to ride underneath it. In the report, 5% of pilings that need repairs were not under the restaurants but under the roadway. For Greensite, the idea that the walkway is needed for repairs is suspect. 

Greensite also disputes the city’s dire financial picture on the wharf and the city’s claim that the Wharf Master Plan is needed for grants.

In 2021, the city got a $620,000 grant to fix the pilings under where the old Miramar restaurant stood. This shows the city could do repairs if they wanted to without the plan according to Greensite.

The city’s finances are harder to discern but the wharf is not exactly swimming in money. In 2020, the city said the wharf had lost money in four of the last six years. 

That assessment took into account maintenance costs like emergency services and parking upkeep. For 2023, the wharf is projecting revenue of $2.6 million and maintenance expenses of $2.5 million, but there is also a infrastructure backlog as high as $14 million. 

“As long as [the wharf] continues operating at a loss, and with the city’s own economic challenges, it will be very difficult to make the investments—to make the 5% [of pilings that are damaged] drop to 0% or 1%—where we don’t risk the loss of a longtime business in a storm,” said McCormic.

Greensite doesn’t see why the city didn’t propose a master plan that the whole city could get behind. 

“Isn’t the wharf good enough as it is?” she said.

Future of the Plan

If the plan is approved at the city council meeting on Tuesday, the city will focus on building a new entranceway and expanding the Eastern Promenade first, and aiming for a 2026 start after Coastal Commission approval is won. 

This leaves the Western Walkway for a later date. Even if the Wharf Master Plan’s EIR passes on Tuesday, the wharf’s transformation remains a long way off. 

It is up to the court to judge if the city has provided enough evidence to prove that the Western Walkway is feasible in the new EIR.

“If the court does in fact find that they did not satisfy the writ, they’re going to have to delay it even longer. The ball is in their court. We would be happy to settle if they took away the Westside Walkway,” said Greensite.

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