With improvements, some residents in Santa Cruz’ s Pleasure Point fear becoming West Cliff

By JASON HOPPIN — Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 06/11/2011 03:39:24 PM PDT

Following the best practices of their industry, a transportation planner might look at the stretch of East Cliff Drive that runs near Pleasure Point Park and think this: holy cow.

There are no sidewalks. In places, the bluff is unguarded by a railing, making it easy for a toddler to addle over. Pedestrians and motorists are separated by 2-foot posts blemished by tire tracks. The road is rutted with scars from heavy machinery brought in to help stabilize the bluffs.

The county has plans to fix this by spending more than $3 million, putting in railings, resurfacing the road and installing a broad, 16-foot-wide walkway. But some locals wonder if the good intentions are misplaced, if replacing this half-mile stretch of rugged, ragged blufftop road means Pleasure Point loses some of its grit, and with it, some of its spirit.

“It’s like they say in Hawaii – keep country ‘country.’ We’re turning it into an L.A.-type cityscape,” said Charles Paulden, a surfer and neighborhood activist. “Leave it alone. This is different than the Westside and it works better than the Westside.”

The yearlong East Cliff Parkway project is an extension of bluff protection efforts that materialized over the past decade. Work could start by the end of the month, and once finished, traffic will be confined to a smaller, one-way road, with the walkway consuming much of the present road. Pleasure Point Park also will be completely redone, with a new, permanent bathroom replacing a Porta-Potty.

The total cost is $3.1 million – about $500,000 lower than planners originally estimated.

The project also is being hastened along by the expected statewide elimination of redevelopment agencies, spurring the county to move the project forward before redevelopment funds disappear. Even the producers of an upcoming biopic on local surfing legend Jay Moriarity inquired about the county’s accelerated construction schedule, hoping for the chance to film Pleasure Point in its present state, better reflecting how the area looked in the mid-1990s, when Moriarity was a teenager.

Standing near the bluff, Paulden knows many of the surfers emerging from the sea, having lived in the area since 1972. He thinks Pleasure Point – where surf legend Jack O’Neill still dwells in a house that clings to the bluff – might be losing the feel that reminds people this place helped launch West Coast surf culture.

Most damning of all, Paulden worries East Cliff Drive will start to look like West Cliff Drive.

“This is the last surf ghetto,” Paulden said. “We’re really taking away the richness of the natural experience, and it’s a shame. It’s not necessary and it costs a ton of money to make it worse.”

Paulden is not alone in worrying it will look too much like the Westside. Pleasure Point resident Patrick Stafford supported how the county handled the controversial bluff improvements, but is less enthusiastic about the road project.

“I like it the way it is,” Stafford said.

Pleasure Point is not and never has been a model of rigorous planning. Even the historic vigilante group the Night Fighters, who in 1932 established the small park at 32nd Avenue, were formed partly because there was no fire department organized to combat after-dark blazes.

But to many, that is part of the charm. The neighborhood along the bluff can be a rag-tag jumble, overlooking Pleasure Point’s natural gifts, including an expansive series of surf breaks from which the neighborhood’s identity springs.

“It has grown organically, there’s no doubt about it. Some people like the funkiness,” said Supervisor John Leopold, a supporter of the project.

Leopold understands the loss some feel at the improvements, but pointed out the project is the result of community input: More people sought the improvements than sought the status quo.

“That is a legitimate conversation, and why we went out and did loads of community meetings,” Leopold said. “There are people who like it the way it is and don’t want any change. But there’s lots of people, more people in fact, who wanted a more accessible space.”

For Paulden, the project represents a loss of place. He is no fan of sidewalks, or even segmenting bike, vehicle and pedestrian traffic from one another. Why take down the palm trees in Pleasure Point Park? Why put up bigger guardrails?

All foliage in the park, save a cypress tree, is coming out. They will be replaced by native plants, a requirement of the California Coastal Commission.

“It wouldn’t be our choice. We were mandated to do that,” said Paul Rodrigues, who works in the county’s redevelopment office.

Another controversy has been the railings. Pedestrians and cyclists have been protected, in parts, by a low metal guardrail, a feature which does not meet modern standards but does provides makeshift benches and a view for surfers to drive by and check out the swell.

State law mandates a fence of least 42 inches. The county has explored several options to preserve that drive-by surf report, settling on a wood fence with a see-through wire mesh.

East Cliff Drive resident Jim Marshall has lived at Pleasure Point for 30 years, raising two children there. While he favors the sidewalk improvements, he is not crazy about the fence, wishing planners perhaps could have moved it down the bluff, removing it from view.

“It’s not in the character of the Point,” Marshall said.

The fence will run the length of the road, protecting people from the cliff.