Neighbors, builders wait another month before word on Ocean Street Extension project
It’s a late October evening and the Santa Cruz Memorial Cemetery looks coolly picturesque. The last hint of sunlight dips behind the bordering mountains, patchy storm clouds gather, and dusk settles over the gravestones. Elsewhere in Santa Cruz, people are huddled around their televisions, cheering as the Giants win game two of the World Series. But here a group of neighborhood residents have gathered, standing on the unpaved shoulder of Ocean Street Extension, to talk over some collective concerns.
Recently, the group made a splash by opposing a proposal before the City of Santa Cruz for a 40-unit development to be built at 1930 Ocean Street Ext., directly across from the cemetery and adjacent to the Santa Cruz Memorial Crematory.
When nine concerned citizens, including environmental attorney Jonathan Wittwer, stood before the Planning Commission at their Oct. 7 meeting (at which they had “recommend approval of the 1930 Ocean Street Ext. project to the city council” on the agenda), they shocked everyone—even the project’s builders—by sounding the alarm on the potential health hazard of having homes so close to the crematory’s smokestack. Dental fillings contain mercury, which is dangerous, even in small amounts, when airborne.
However, the group says their intention was not to be alarmists and that in the scheme of things, mercury is not a main concern. Yet they have watched as the mysterious mercury conundrum has been “sensationalized” by local media, in neighbor Bonita John’s words, and dominated public debate.
“Everyone in the media has emphasized the crematorium, and it is an issue we’re concerned about but we can’t say it impacts us,” says John.
They’re more worried about the other issues they brought up at the planning meeting: traffic, parking, and density. The proposal is for a 40-unit development on a parcel currently zoned for 10 units, and its approval would require amendments to the city’s Zoning Map (changing it from single family residential zone to a low density multiple residential zone) and to the city’s General Plan (low medium density instead of low density residential).
“They are proposing to change the zoning regulations, and the zoning regulations tell you something about what the neighborhood is,” says Allison Guevara, a resident of nearby Jewell Street. “So if you’re going to change what the zoning regulations are for this parcel, you need to look at the needs of the entire neighborhood. Traffic over the years has grown—and at what point will they fix it? Here we are looking at another large development, a very dense development, that will make matters much worse.”
However, with very few usable parcels left for housing development, the city tends to favor projects that require a Planned Development permit (the type this project will require and which allows for “flexibility away from the typical restrictions of the zoning that is in place,” according to Planning Commissioner David Foster).
In fact it was the city, says project builders Rick Moe and Craig Rowell, which encouraged them to up the density of their project. “The city was encouraging us to increase the density over the [zoning],” says Moe. “They have a lot of General Plan mandates to try to infill within the urban services line at moderate densities to create housing opportunities.”
City of Santa Cruz Zoning Administrator Eric Marlatt says that it is neither unheard of nor uncommon to grant such ammendments. “The city has limited available vacant sites for development,” he tells Good Times via email. “The requested General Plan and Zoning Map amendment[s] to increase the allowable density at the site would support the city’s goals of ensuring ‘optimum utilization of vacant infill parcels’ and providing adequate sites to ‘accommodate housing through land use, zoning designations to encourage a broad range of housing opportunities.’”
Still, the possibility of having 40 additional residences just over the county line from a neighborhood with less than 50 homes itself doesn’t sit well with the neighborhood gang. Although near to town, their county neighborhood is an oasis of old time rural beauty and neighborliness, surrounded by old growth trees and home to Route 1 Farms.
They foresee a big traffic impact as a result of the increased density. The parcel is nestled between poorly maintained Ocean Street Extension and increasingly busy Graham Hill Road; the intersection where the two streets meet is notoriously accident-prone.
“Graham Hill is a very busy street already, and this would add a couple of hundred car trips everyday,” says Guevara. “They’re going to say that’s a drop in the bucket, but that’s a lot a cumulative drops that are flooding this road.”
The Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) estimates that the development will generate an additional 266 daily vehicle trips. And, as Guevara predicted, the builders don’t think these added car trips will make much of a difference. “We don’t think there is an issue there,” says Moe. “The intersection functions—especially with the improvements we are doing that everyone will be able to enjoy—at the acceptable level to the city.”
Ellen Aldridge, of the Ocean Extension Neighborhood Association, passed the traffic study to RBF Consulting for review. In an Oct. 21 letter, Frederick Venter of RBF confirms many of the residents’ concerns. Among his conclusions was that the TIA did not account for the existing traffic coming from Paradise Park, a several hundred home gated neighborhood that has access to Ocean Street Extension and uses it when Highway 9 is closed or under construction. Nor does it account for funeral traffic, says Venter, which brings significant parking problems to the street. “Apartments, “ he writes, “typically result in increased on-street parking demand and combined with funeral parking demand there will be a shortfall of available parking spaces on Ocean Street Extension.”
Venter adds that the traffic study also lacks information on pedestrian and bicycle safety and access to sidewalks and crosswalks. “Also,” the report states, “the roadway surface condition of Ocean Street Extension is failing and in need of repair. Added construction and vehicular traffic will further deteriorate the roadway surface. It is recommended that the project applicant repave the street and provide shoulder and sidewalk facilities from at least the project frontage to Graham Hill//Ocean Street.”
As required when applying for a Planned Development permit, the builders worked in several road and traffic improvements to their application. They have offered to repave the street and install sidewalks, curbs and gutters along the frontage of their property (and a bit farther), as well as make safety improvements to the intersection.
Although they cannot predict where their future tenants may park, they are providing 97 on-site parking spaces, rather than the required 79, for what is estimated to be a total of 60 to 75 resident cars. “We’re above and beyond the standard requirement,” says Moe.
Zoning Administrator Marlatt confirms this; “these are improvements over and above what the city could otherwise legally require,” he writes.
But the neighbors aren’t sure that these proposed “community benefits” are enough. With any additional traffic and parking demands to the street—which is the only way in and out of the neighborhood—they fear the worst in an emergency situation. Graham Hill resident Jim Peck compares it to the water main break on River Street in 2009.
“If there was a water main break, or another disaster, there would be no way out,” says Peck. “ [The city] needs to look at this from a historical point of view. When [the Costco/River Street disaster] happened, the planning board and city council and everyone else said we should’ve done something different down there. So let’s not do it again.”
Peck adds that the group is far from NIMBYs, and that they aren’t anti-development. They simply won’t compromise on any plan for more than the 10 units the land is zoned for.
From the builder’s point of view, the mercury issue is the only real factor holding their project back. As for the other concerns regarding their project, they expected to hear some complaints when they “met the new neighbors.”
“The mercury thing caught us off guard, but the rest of it was predictable,” says Moe, who, with Rowell, has faced similar situations with neighbors at most projects they’ve done. In a best-case scenario, they hope to break ground on the site this coming spring. However, this seems less and less likely the longer the issue is tabled: after the surprising turnout and number of concerns raised at their October meeting, the planning commission pushed the discussion to the Nov. 4 meeting, and then postponed it once more to Dec. 2. According to Marlatt, city staff is using the time to work with the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District to look at mercury emissions from the crematorium, help the builder’s further their improvements to the Graham Hill/Ocean Street intersection, and continue to review citizen comments.
“Would they have questioned the proposal if we hadn’t have spoken up? You just can’t know—and this is the point,” says Guevara. “This is why we have democracy, why we have public hearings. So we’re really hopeful that this will be a responsive process. So far we feel like they’re listening.”
Check out what Fifth District Supervisor Mark Stone has to say on the matter in this week’s Town Hall column.