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Behind the Battle in Beach Flats

How negotiations over the Beach Flats Community Garden went wrong

Supporters view the Beach Flats Community Garden, seen here last fall before the city redrew its boundaries, as a sanctuary for healthy food and cultural history. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

It was October of last year when Councilmember Cynthia Chase brought about 20 gardeners to Santa Cruz City Hall on Center Street to sit down with Kris Reyes, the Santa Cruz Seaside Company’s spokesperson, and discuss the future of the Beach Flats Community Garden.

In the weeks leading up to the talk, activists in neon shirts reading “Guarde el Jardín” had been crowding small meeting rooms. Green-space supporters had written impassioned letters to local newspapers imploring everyone to do whatever they could to save the cacti, corn and other vegetables on the nearly half-acre patch of land owned by the Seaside Company, but farmed for 20 years by local gardeners, many of whom worried they had harvested for their last season there.

On the wall in that October meeting hung a historic oil painting of the San Lorenzo River in 1876, and out the window, the city’s courtyard fountain lay dry and empty due to water rationing in the drought. Sitting in swivel chairs at the long wooden table, gardeners talked about what they loved about the garden, which the Seaside Company had indefinitely loaned to the community for two decades. In the nearly four-hour meeting, Reyes shared why the company—which also owns the Beach Boardwalk, a few motels, parking lots and other Beach Flats real estate—needed the land back to start a nursery for their landscaping needs.

“I’m always looking for ‘What’s the middle way?’” explains Chase, now the city’s vice mayor, sitting in the same room where she started the discussion. “Where can we find some compromise? Does this have to be all or nothing? Is there some negotiation that can preserve the ability of these gardeners to keep gardening? I think that’s how it all started.”

The following month, Reyes would go on to announce at a Santa Cruz City Council meeting that the Seaside Company would be preserving 60 percent of the garden with a three-year lease, hopefully long enough for the city to find a permanent home for it. Many supporters left that council meeting still fuming, desperate to find a way to save the space in its entirety, but the new proposal offered a garden more than twice the size of either of the last two compromises the Seaside Company had suggested.

The October discussion had laid the groundwork.

“We talked at length about what was important to them,” Reyes remembers. “I tried to share, as best I could, what was important to us. And I felt like each time we did that, we had a better understanding of what was important to each side, and I think those meetings were critical in allowing the gardeners to feel comfortable enough with us to sign their agreement and begin the transition. But we put a lot of time into working with them and understanding.”

If there was one thing that could be said to have set off and gradually worsened the arguments over the garden, which first turned contentious nearly a year ago, it would be the mutual feeling of disrespect each side felt from the other.

Garden advocates felt it was a sanctuary in a place practically overrun with Boardwalk visitors for several months out of the year. “The noise and the traffic and the trash,” says Vicki Winters, a longtime garden supporter. “It is this little oasis there.”

Meanwhile, Reyes and his coworkers wondered how they ended up getting yelled at after donating a parcel of land for 20 years.

“Everybody’s right. Nobody’s wrong in that,” Chase says. “That was their experience. That was their perception.”

 

Why the Garden Matters

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AROUND THE CORN Emilio Martinez Castaneda has farmed in the Beach Flats Community Garden for two decades. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Beach Flats, which is tucked between the San Lorenzo River and the Boardwalk, is the most economically depressed neighborhood in the city, with large families often crowded into small and sometimes rundown units. Many in the community work at the neighboring Boardwalk. With so little park space, the garden has long provided a respite from the noise that fills the air during summer nights, and traffic that plugs Beach Street on the afternoons. In that context, the garden’s disappearance quickly became an emotional one, says Councilmember Don Lane.

“We have this community within Santa Cruz that generally is disadvantaged. No one would question that,” Lane says. “And [when] something that’s really important to the community is threatened, a whole bunch of people are gonna go, ‘That’s wrong.’ That fueled the public discourse around this—‘This disadvantaged community is being wronged, and we must not allow that.’”

Reyes and the Seaside Company told city parks staff in late 2014 that the company would not be renewing the yearly $1 lease because it needed the garden for landscaping, and the city sent letters to the gardeners. More than six months later, at what Reyes calls “the eleventh hour,” activists began their full-scale campaign to protect the garden, and many suggested seizing it in its entirety. Rumors began to spread. “That’s where the frustration comes from,” says Reyes.

It isn’t uncommon, Lane explains, for people to feel slighted in the political process. Part of the job of a policymaker, he says, is demonstrating to constituents that they understand where someone else is coming from.

“That’s normal in a sense. That’s human nature,” says Lane, who was involved in the Beach Flats Community Garden discussions. “But it always gets tricky when multiple players are each coming into it with that feeling. Because then you choose a side, and somebody who already was feeling disrespected and doesn’t get anything out of it is really angry—like ‘Wow, I feel disrespected. I let you know how I feel about that, and you still disrespected me.’ It’s a double injury. To me, one of the most important things is to not allow that to happen. When the different parties are feeling disrespected and not heard, [it’s important] that we deliver something to them so that they don’t feel disrespected.”

 

Hence the Fence

On a recent Thursday, the late afternoon sun is casting long shadows at the Beach Flats Community Garden as young neighbors play, running in circles in and out of a small shed. Around them, young bean, kale, parsley, onion and squash plants sprout out of the ground. The spicy smell of a bonfire wafts through the air from a small pit that parents have gathered around, speaking Spanish.

“The way things are grown in that garden is different than other gardens, like the ones I see in the Westside,” artist Irene O’Connell tells GT on the phone, as she sketches. O’Connell is brainstorming a few drafts for the Beach Flats mural on Raymond Street that will be repainted more than two years after city workers coated the previous mural in white paint—the beginning of an ill-fated project for which the city later apologized. (O’Connell, who is incorporating the garden into her community mural, will unveil her sketches at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15 at Beach Flats Park and ask for input.)

The gardeners’ farming style, O’Connell notes, features traditional Latin American methods that have been taught by hand. “It’s a knowledge and it’s an important resource that’s been passed down through generations,” O’Connell says.

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DEEP ROOTS Don Domingo Mendoza has been gardening at the Beach Flats Community Garden since it opened 20 years ago. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

Toward the back of the garden, a wooden good-neighbor fence divides the green space from a large barren plot of dirt, where the Seaside Company will start a small nursery.

On the company’s side of the barrier, weeds have sprouted from the ground. And where the vacated patch of garden faces the San Lorenzo River levees, streamers still hang from a wire fence—pieces of cloth that once spelled out pro-garden messages, but have since been rendered indecipherable and tattered from six months of sun and rain.

The Seaside Company, which currently has an application into the Santa Cruz Planning Department to re-zone its portion, wants to use this land to grow and nurture plants that will go around the Boardwalk and in some of its nearby parking lots. It’s part of giving guests a “softer experience,” Reyes says, “where it’s as much about the space that you’re playing in as the things that you’re doing when you’re there. The landscaping is a huge part of that strategy.”

For instance, the Boardwalk, Reyes says, is filling large colorful pots, nearly as tall as a person, with large red flowers around the park. “It’s about how you create the environment where people feel comfortable and at home,” he explains. “And one way you do that is with great plants and greenery and flowers and color. It’s just being integrated throughout the park.”

Back on its side of the fence, the Coalition to Save the Beach Flats Garden still holds meetings, and the group wants to make sure the garden is a big issue in the 2016 City Council race. Advocates still cling to the goal of preserving the original garden in its entirety.

“I hope the garden is going to be front and center of an issue of how politics play out in this city,” Winters says. “It’s something I want to ask candidates.”

 

Fault Lines

“There’s been any number of miscommunications, and I think there has been both literally and figuratively so much lost in translation,” Chase says, remembering some of the mistakes in the city’s handling of the community garden issue. “It’s really sad to me. What was really clear in the meeting with the Seaside Company and the gardeners was they want to garden. If you just boiled it down, they were like, ‘We want to garden. When can we go? Let’s garden. Let’s get back on the land.’”

Everyone admits that the most tragic mishap happened on the day city workers came to divvy up the garden, and ended up cutting down fruit trees that were simply supposed to be moved after a harvest. There was also confusion about whether or not the city would be installing a bathroom, where the boundary lines of the garden would fall, and other matters—many of which reinforced garden supporters’ distrust of the city and the Seaside Company.

Many have asked for the City Council to use eminent domain and seize the property. It’s something Councilmember Micah Posner suggested at an April meeting, although no other councilmembers supported the move. Lane and Chase worry the action would sour the city’s relationship with the Seaside Company, which it often partners with on local projects. The city attorney says the city would likely prevail in court. But the costs could be high, especially if the Seaside Company chose to fight it. And the lot’s estimated value, which the city would need to pay, could run close to $2 million.

In addition, that course of action could temporarily kick gardeners off their land, which is just about the last thing Lane and Chase say they want. The plan, instead, is to work together with the Seaside Company to find a new permanent home for the garden.

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GOD SAVE THE GREEN City leaders have pledged to find the garden a permanent home. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

This year, City Manager Martín Bernal has also prioritized affordable housing in the neighborhood, as part of a bigger strategy to improve Beach Flats—a discussion in which the Seaside Company will also participate.

Of course, housing was a priority 18 years ago too, when the city drafted its Beach Area Plan, as was the garden itself.

The Beach Area Plan of 1998 detailed the poor housing, insufficient park space, heavy tourist impact, unsafe streets, and overall low quality of life in the area. It also recommended, nearly two decades before this issue came to a head last year, that the city look for a permanent home for the garden.

“The concern,” according to the plan, “stems from the fact that the site is currently on private property, which is proposed for eventual development.”

The city has realized some of its goals set in the plan, like a levee path system and the addition of the Nueva Vista Community Resources building and housing complex. But the garden stayed put for years, while Seaside and the city re-approved the lease agreement each year without giving it much thought.

“The city has had 20 years of altruism on the part of the Seaside Company and in hindsight, we should have done something before now,” says City Councilmember Micah Posner, the council’s most vocal supporter of the garden. “I don’t blame the Seaside Company for wanting the land back. It’s just about preserving the culture, the open space and the agriculture in that neighborhood. For me, that’s what government is for, when a corporation has more influence than an entire community. The Seaside Company owns a huge part of that whole community.”

Posner, an activist at heart, is skeptical that the Seaside Company and the city will do the work to save what’s left of the garden—even suggesting it would take protests or maybe even a boycott to make any headway. But, he’s quick to add, he hopes he’s wrong.

No one knows exactly how anyone will make the garden “permanent,” especially because the Seaside Company doesn’t normally sell land. But Reyes and Lane point to the temporary Santa Cruz Warriors arena on an old Boardwalk parking lot as the kind of deal multiple parties can agree on.

Possibly the best option, Lane says, would be to keep the garden where it is now. He notes that the city has a lot of land as well and maybe the Seaside Company will show interest in some sort of exchange. Also, as Lane noted in the April council meeting, no one has taken eminent domain off the table for good.

Garden advocates aren’t taking anything for granted even though the city has made a commitment to protect the garden. Winters isn’t even surprised the city never created a permanent home for the garden after putting it in its plan 18 years ago.

“Things get put in plans,” Winters says. “And once the plan’s done, everyone pats themselves on the back. ‘Wasn’t that a good plan?’ Unless people protest to make things happen, they just don’t.”

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