Aptos residents worry their new plan may be too big for a small town
The air was electrified with anger and concern on the evening of April 22, as residents of Aptos piled into the Rio Sands Inn’s community room. Organizers expected around 75 people at the meeting to discuss the Aptos Village Plan; they got two or three times that many. The temperature was hot—and so were tempers.
“The project itself is an entitled project,” County Supervisor Zach Friend said, opening the meeting. “The purpose of tonight isn’t to have a discussion [about] whether it’s good or bad … It’s an already approved project. The builders can start whenever they want.”
That was the last thing that residents in the audience wanted to hear. Many were concerned about the already snarled-beyond-reason traffic; housing units with no plans for where to send kids to school; and adding more people and businesses to a town of 6,220 during a drought.
The project is the reconstruction of downtown Aptos Village, at the intersection of Soquel Drive and Trout Gulch Road, including the area in front of the Aptos Post Office and around the historic Bayview Hotel, all the way to the entrance to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. The building process has taken a dozen years for permitting and has been discussed in nine public hearings and 22 neighborhood meetings, according to records on developer Barry Swenson Builder’s website.
It’s one of two major projects for Aptos—the other, a redevelopment of the Safeway shopping center at State Park and Soquel drives has been discussed, but no formal plans have been submitted.
Although the meeting was called to discuss proposed minor changes to the Aptos Village Project (curving a road which then cuts a proposed building in two and adds additional space for a third one to be built), it quickly became clear the real topic on everyone’s mind was the plan itself. Half of the meeting was spent answering questions handed in on index cards.
Approved twice by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in 2012, the development follows the Aptos Village Plan of 2010 to “re-establish the Village as the Civic Heart of Aptos,” according to the plan’s official website (theaptosvillage.com). It will include 69 new residences, 15 shops and four restaurants including a New Leaf Community Market in the old Apple Barn (now Village Fair Antiques but still lovingly referred to as the “Apple Barn” by Aptos residents). The barn will be relocated at the center of the Village, next to a newly designed, artificial turf field named the “Village Green.”
The housing will be in 14 two- and three-story buildings opposite the exit to the Post Office. The project is set to begin in the fall and finish its first stage in spring, 2016.
“The County envisioned this area to be much more than a project,” Mary Gourlay of Barry Swenson Builder told the crowd. “It was meant to be pedestrian-friendly and keeping in character with what exists in Aptos right now.”
Some in the crowd were happy to see the addition of housing and businesses; others were afraid that it would bring too much congestion. The most vocal opponent, Becky Steinbruner, had jumped in front of a bulldozer in February trying to stop it from demolishing a dirt track for bicycles, which stood where the housing will be. She and four other protesters were unsuccessful in stopping the long-planned construction, and claimed the public wasn’t given enough input.
Steinbruner is encouraging residents to try and get the plan put off—at least, she says, until measures are taken to forestall the drought, or the drought ends. “I would like to see it delayed until the water issue is resolved,” she says.
She’s also concerned about the fact that the only access to the new downtown is the two-lane Soquel Drive, which can’t be widened because it is bordered by two railroad overpasses and an almost century-old bridge.
“The area is already so dense,” says Steinbruner. “How will they evacuate if there is a fire? There are a thousand people living around there and the roads will jam up.”
Many left the meeting shaking their heads and murmuring as they exited or headed straight to the planners for follow-up explanations.
“I have to digest the information now,” said one man who asked not to be identified. “There were things I wasn’t aware of that came out in the meeting: some good, some questionable.”
Susan P. Wright, a science historian doing research at the UCSC Politics Department, was more skeptical.
“In essence, this meeting was about the attempt of the developers, with support from the water managers, and possibly also the traffic department, to dispense great globs of tranquilization, distraction, and pacification into the turbulent currents of community skepticism,” says Wright.
One of the plan’s first steps is moving the 125-year-old Hihn Apple Barn, which will become a 17,500-square-foot New Leaf Community Market. For that to happen, Granite Way must also be realigned to accommodate it. When asked if the Apple Barn can sustain such a move, a civil engineer for Barry Swenson Builder, David Ramsay, said: “The hope is that the barn will not fall apart.”
A similar historic effort failed when a barn fell apart at another Aptos shopping area—Deer Park, on Rio del Mar Boulevard—in the 1970s.
Later in the evening, Jesse Nickell of Barry Swenson Builder showed more confidence, “Construction people do this for a living … I have no doubt in my mind that it will make it back together,” says Nickell.
He added that there is no plan to have an archeologist at the site when the historic structure is moved, which drew more criticism from the crowd. Once the barn is moved, the rest of Granite Way will be realigned to Village Way so construction can begin on two residential buildings on Granite Way.
Phase One also includes a new road, Aptos Village Way, cutting through the heart of the project to connect Village Creek Road and Trout Gulch Road. An added offshoot, Parade Street, will connect Aptos Village Way and Soquel Drive.
Two new traffic signals and a new left-turn lane into the Bay Federal Credit Union’s parking lot should improve traffic on Soquel Drive, says Jack Sohriakoff, a senior civil engineer with the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works. One of the lights will be at Soquel Drive and Trout Gulch; the other at Soquel Drive and Aptos Creek Road, which leads into Nisene Marks State Park.
“With stop signs, traffic is always moving,” he said in an interview. “With traffic lights, traffic stops and may back up, but it actually moves better.”
He added that the new roads will take some of the after-school pressure off Soquel Drive.
The road improvements alone will cost an estimated $3.5 million, and construction is expected to begin in March 2016.
During the Q&A, Sohriakoff said that while the traffic analyses are “fairly old” (the first was conducted in 2002, the last in 2009) traffic volume decreased in recent years because of a recession and higher gas prices.
Therefore, the changes between the analyses and today are “not significant,” Sohriakoff says, adding that when the 2002 report concluded that the morning peak did not meet the requirements for improvement, meaning the plan is only designed to alleviate afternoon peak hours. Upon hearing this, Steinbruner scoffed.
“This morning there were 935 cars at the Cathedral/Trout Gulch intersection between 7 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.,” she said to applause.
Another question raised at the two-hour-long meeting was: Will the current water supply be enough to accommodate such a project?
The developers said they were prepared for drought restrictions: businesses and residences will include efficient faucets and low-flow toilets. Swenson will install water-saving washing machines with a 4.5 water factor (the number of gallons used per cycle per cubic foot) in the residences.
“That’s more than G.E. energy-efficient washers,” says Gourlay.
They will build roadside rain gardens on Aptos Village Way to harvest excess surface water. Bioswales—landscaping designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff—will drape Granite Way. They will also install 37 Darcy Columns (vertical drains used for sites with clay soil) to collect water. And the “Village Green” will be artificially turfed.
They will also dig a 1,600-square-foot, 750-foot-deep well on the northwest corner of the site. A 500-foot-deep pump will allow most of the water to remain underground with only a foot or so above surface, surrounded by a chain-link fence with slatted wood.
“We wanted to move our water wells inland so we don’t draw water so close to the ocean,” says Ron Duncan, of the Soquel Creek Water District. “We’re starting to see seawater intrusion. The more inland, the better off it is.”
When a concerned attendee asked what will happen if the wells of surrounding neighbors in the Aptos Hills go dry, Duncan was quick to answer.
“We’re very sensitive to that,” says Duncan. “We will monitor your well—for free—and make sure there’s no significant impact to it. That’s what we do. Anywhere up to 1,000 meters [from the proposed well].”
Another resident raised the question again, to which Dr. Bruce Jaffee, a SCWD Board member and geologist/oceanographer for the US Geological Service, said that “the problem is not wells going dry here. It’s wells going salty.”
Like many of her neighbors, one of Steinbruner’s biggest worries revolves around the currently overstressed aquifer; she says she isn’t against the project entirely.
Barry Swenson Builder is now waiting for the Board of Supervisors to vote May 5 on whether or not to approve the current set of modifications, and will apply for the a final permit then. The Board of Supervisors meets at 9 a.m. on May 5 in the Governmental Center Building at 701 Ocean Street, Room 525, in Santa Cruz.
PHOTO: The approved plan for Aptos Village. BARRY SWENSON