What We Lost With La Bahia

news_labahia1A guest column from the city’s mayor: For 20 years, the City of Santa Cruz has worked on a plan to transform the beach area into a year-round destination that showcases our incredible community, creates jobs and ensures a stable tax base.  Millions of dollars, thousands of pages of reports and studies, and hundreds of hours of public testimony were invested.

Sadly, last Thursday afternoon, Aug. 11, after a one-day hearing at which the Santa Cruz community overwhelmingly showed up in support, the Coastal Commission rejected the necessary amendment to our coastal plan to develop La Bahia on Beach Street from a shabby residence to a beautiful 125-room conference hotel. 

When votes like this occur, we tend to focus on who won or lost politically. Who voted “yes” and who voted “no” and the particulars of the proposed project. What we forget is that buildings don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist for people and the community. So when La Bahia was voted down, here is what the community lost:

• More than 100 year-round jobs guaranteed to have good wages and benefits under a contractual obligation to match union-scale wages and benefits.

• A $28 million construction project that was required to be built by at least 80 percent union and local contractors at a time when that industry is hurting in historic proportions.

• $700,000 a year in direct tax revenue that funds public safety, parks and community programs. To give a sense of how important these funds are, in order to balance our budget this year, the city had to cut $100,000 from community programs, causing hundreds of families to lose access to childcare, shelter and basic services.

• Economic opportunity and job creation from the visitors and conference attendees who desire to come to Santa Cruz for recreation and business, yet are turned away daily because of the lack of suitable accommodations.

• Millions of dollars in indirect impacts because our tourist season would expand with off-season conferences and events that would have allowed visitors to shop and eat downtown and support local businesses.

• A certified green hotel that would have provided more than 50 free bicycles, funding for a trolley to downtown and support of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Center.

• A first hire program for residents of the Beach Flats, including free language and job skills classes from Shoreline, a Goodwill program. This would have not only created economic opportunity for that community but also a nearby job that allows people to spend more time with their family and community.

• Commissions for local artists to provide the artwork in the hotel.

What was also lost was a sense of possibility for economic development that reflects our values. This project had widespread support—local businesses, nonprofits, public safety, elected officials, and neighbors came together to design a project that we could enthusiastically support. A nearly unanimous city council supported it as did Fred Keeley, Bruce McPherson, Capitola and Scotts Valley mayors, County Supervisor Neal Coonerty and the Coastal Commission staff.

After all of this support and work, six members of the Commission (four voted yes) ignored their staff, the overwhelming majority of public testimony, and pleas of the locally elected officials. Their reasoning seemed to be based on the idea that the property owner and community will simply go away and come back with another project. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Their vote does not provide the certainty that most investors need and especially those who would be interested in engaging in a long-term planning process that seeks community input and support.

It was especially disappointing that our local representative to the Coastal Commission, County Supervisor Mark Stone, refused to work with us to develop a project that he could support. He has a role representing this community on the Commission and profoundly failed to lead.

This was not a perfect project, but it was one built on thoughtful accommodation of community, economic development, historical and environmental needs. We are now left with the current building for the indefinite future. I hope that Mark Stone and his fellow commissioners and opponents of this project who claim victory, do so while acknowledging the very real opportunities that this community lost.

Ryan Coonerty is the Mayor of Santa Cruz.  Photo credit: Keana Parker

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