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Wharf Factor

news1 wharfNew plan seeks to prepare historic landmark for the next 100 years 

It extends 2,745 feet over the cyan waters of the Monterey Bay, and about 22 feet above them, atop a colonnade of more than 4,500 Douglas fir piles. The Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf has served the city for 100 years, and is an anomaly among its kind.

“It is the longest timber pile wharf remaining on the coast of the United States,” says wharf supervisor Jon Bombaci. “It’s one of three in this class in the world.”

In order to enliven the municipal wharf, preserve its heritage, and ensure the structure continues to withstand the test of time, Santa Cruz staff, with the help of a few consultants, have compiled the Wharf Master Plan and Engineering Report—a set of recommendations, proposals and guidelines that might serve as a roadmap for the wharf’s future.

“We’re trying to maintain some of the existing fabric of the wharf, some of the social fabric, and some of the physical parts of it,” says Norm Daly, wharf property manager, and project manager for the Wharf Master Plan.

“It really takes a reinvestment of energy, of funds, and of straight, clear thinking about what do we want to happen out here. What would be the best for the community? What would be the best for residents and for the business people out here? And that’s what this plan is trying to do: identify things through proposals and concepts that can really take it through the next 25 years,” Daly says.

The new plan calls for moving the entrance station further from Beach Street, and adding two entrance gates accompanied by a welcome sign. The plan also aims to create a new overlook at the pier’s end, haul-outs for sea lions to lounge in full view of pedestrians, ADA-accessible ramps to proposed boat landings, and, at the wharf’s end, a historic landmark building—similar to a structure that stood there in the past.

One idea that stands out is the proposed “East Promenade,” which would widen the wharf by 24 feet, and create a safer pedestrian experience. The promenade would make the wharf more desirable for bicyclists and pedestrians, while adding stability and strength to its structure.

“I see the raised promenade on the east side as the most valuable element of this Wharf Master Plan project because it will eliminate a lot of the bicyclist/pedestrian tangle that goes on in the summer out there, and it will put people much more at ease, and will give locals much freer access via bicycle,” says Bombaci. “You’re adding that lateral strength, which is just critical.”

The plan, partly funded by a $850,000 federal grant in October 2012 following the 2011 tsunami, also suggests adding a glass-encased events pavilion on the historic pier’s western side, where an underutilized stage currently resides. On days when the winds are low and the sun is shining, the pavilion could be opened up.

Popular Planks

The last remaining wharf out of an original six in the city, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf first came about through a $182,000 bond issue in 1913, passed by a 45-to-1 vote (3400 for, 73 against)—the largest plurality in city history.

“I am pretty darn sure that’s never happened again on any bond measure,” says Bombaci, who oversees the wharf’s day-to-day operation,s and keeps an encyclopedic knowledge of the structure’s rich history.

With the railroads holding sway on freight prices, and road technologies still in a primitive state, many saw the construction of the municipal wharf, which was completed in December of 1914, as a more reliable means to transport raw materials and finished goods in and out of Santa Cruz—a way to secure the town’s future as a viable seaport.

“Santa Cruz was the third-largest shipping port in the state at the time, and they really saw themselves as having a future as a major shipping port,” says Bombaci.

Soon after the wharf’s completion, railroads dropped their shipping prices, and road-paving technology evolved. “It really affected the whole freight aspect pretty deeply,” says Bombaci.

That left the wharf in the hands of commercial and charter fishing. That is, until the 1950s, when commercial fishing fell into decline with the arrival of larger fishing vessels from San Francisco. By the ’70s, the commercial fishing industry had all but fallen by the wayside.

As commercial shipping and fishing waned, restaurants and shops found homes on the wharf, and the structure’s contemporary function as a recreational draw to residents and tourists began to take shape and evolve.

Extending to the Future

The city chose to work with Boris Dramov and Bonnie Fisher of ROMA Design Group, a San Francisco-based architectural firm that specializes in waterfront design, and worked with the city in the past to redesign downtown after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

“We love Santa Cruz and have worked there many times,” says Fisher. “We feel like we know it. It is a place we feel very comfortable with.”

Fisher and Dramov drew from the wharf’s historical designs, and the surrounding seascape.

“What you want is to have an authenticity of place,” says Dramov. “We don’t want to make it cute, or emulate other places.”

Brad Porter and his team at Moffatt & Nichol Engineers, the firm that handled the engineering side of the plan, inspected the thousands of vertical piles that hold up the wharf, and analyzed the condition of the timber substructure, as well as the wharf’s weight capacity. Porter, who served as project manager for the engineering report, says the municipal wharf is in remarkable shape for a pier of its age and magnitude.

“I have inspected a lot of timber waterfront structures, and when they get to be much over 40 to 50 years old, they are generally in a pretty deteriorated condition,” says Porter. “What we found is that the wharf was in surprisingly good shape.”

He attributes the wharf’s good standing to the vigilant maintenance of the wharf’s staff, led by Bombaci.

“It is rare that any entity, whether public or private, really dedicates that amount of labor to maintain a structure,” says Porter. “It’s kind of like the Golden Gate Bridge, where they’re continuously painting it, and that’s what it takes.”

Porter also ran the numbers for the concepts and recommendations proposed by ROMA Design Group in the Wharf Master Plan, which was presented to the public at a community briefing held by the city’s Economic Development Department on May 19.

Some at the briefing worried that the plan would transform the wharf into a commercialized abomination. “This seems to be a drastic remake bordering on exploitation,” community member Ralph Meyberg said.

Steve Elb, owner of Olita’s Cantina and Grille, was consulted during the plan’s formation, and is behind the city’s efforts. “I like the idea that the wharf is getting a general facelift, which it could use,” says Elb.

Dramov says the plan, which will go before the city council in September, is a template, and he expects further input.

“We want to create opportunities for additional creativity every step of the way,” says Dramov.                 

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