Finally, A Bike Path Through Arana Gulch

Arana Gulch, the Santa Cruz tarplant, and the bike path that tore an environmental community apart.

by Melissa Ott

Jan. 12, 2014—After more than 20 years, two lawsuits and countless meetings regarding its master plan, one of the most hotly contested projects in recent Santa Cruz history has come to fruition.

The Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail project connecting Broadway and Brommer streets is finally open, with a paved path, two new bridges and meandering pedestrian trails traversing the 68-acre greenbelt just north of the Harbor. To celebrate, a dedication and ribbon-cutting will take place on Wednesday, Jan. 14, from 2pm to 4pm at the Broadway/Frederick Street entrance to the new Hagemann Gulch Bridge. All are welcome to join local dignitaries and those who contributed to this project at the event, which will feature live music by the Kuumbwa Jazz Honor Band, refreshments and tours. Learn about the Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail Ribbon Cutting here.

Carefully designed as water-permeable and low-impact, the new trail provides a separated corridor (that’s Transportationese for “bike lane separated from traffic”) to persuade people out of their cars. “In order to encourage more bicycling, we need a complete network of safe facilities that make it easy to reach major destinations within the county,” says Amelia Conlen, Director of People Power of Santa Cruz County, which advocated for the path since its earliest concept.

The need for safer routes across Mid-County was tragically underscored on the morning of Dec. 26 when 63-year-old Jose Adan Lainez was struck and killed by a truck while bicycling eastbound on Soquel Avenue at Hagemann, just a few blocks from the new route.

Conlen says the new trail provides a “key connection” for people on bikes by giving them an option that’s both efficient and safe.

“Currently, cyclists traveling from Santa Cruz to Capitola have two options: Soquel Avenue, a high-traffic street which can often feel scary for people on bikes, or the beach route along Portola and East Cliff, which is beautiful but less direct and takes longer. The new trail gives cyclists the third option of taking Broadway Avenue to Brommer Street.”

Celebrations aside, the new trail almost wasn’t. The natural habitat of Arana Gulch is not only rich in animal and plant diversity (the list of possible species sightings is impressive), but also recognized as a California Coastal Zone environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA). The coastal prairie and grasslands on this ancient terraced sea floor are the exclusive home to a subspecies of Santa Cruz tarplant (Holocarpha macradenia).

This unassuming plant, named for its resinous coating, has been the star of the contentious Arana Gulch show for many years, and its endangered species status nearly stopped the project from happening at all.

History of Arana Gulch

Named after Juan Arana, a Mexican-era land grantee who lived in Live Oak in the mid-1800s, the property began operating as a ranch before the turn of the century, then became the East Side Dairy in the 1920s. For roughly 100 years, grazing cattle supported the growth of native plants by eating nonnatives and letting the sunshine reach the smaller plants.

The history of Arana Gulch as a designated open space began in the 1970s, when Santa Cruz citizens put a greenbelt measure on the ballot in order to preserve environmental, scenic, economic and aesthetically beneficial lands around the city while limiting sprawl. Measure O passed in 1979, providing a “greenbelt overlay” zoning designation on five privately owned parcels, which had fun names like Arana Gulch, Pogonip, Wave Crest, Bombay (now Moore Creek Preserve), and Westside Kinzli.

Though the protections under Measure O terminated in 1994, Santa Cruz passed Measure I in 1992, which required that a greenbelt master plan be created by the City in order to identify funding sources for acquiring greenbelt lands, determine acceptable use of those lands and develop a long-term preservation plan. Measure I passed with 70 percent in favor, and eventually all but the Westside Kinzli property (south of Meder Street and west of Western Drive) were acquired.

Two years later, in 1994, the city of Santa Cruz purchased Arana Gulch for $3.4 million following a lawsuit against the city by the property owners, who had never been compensated when their land was granted protection from development through Measure O. Then-mayor Scott Kennedy publicly expressed intentions to sell some of the land, as well as build upon it.

Neither intention occurred, owing to Measure I protections, but another plan to build an east-west bike path made its way to the drawing board. It remained a proposed plan for many years to come, facing scrutiny and legal challenges along the way.

Santa Cruz Tarplant Chronicles

People Power, Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, and other bicycling advocacy organizations actively supported the proposed plan, which also included a tarplant restoration and management component recommended by environmental groups.

A 1997 agreement between the city of Santa Cruz and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife stipulated that the city undertake restoration management using techniques like grazing, soil disturbance and fire. According to Jean Brocklebank of Friends of Arana Gulch, “The [city] Parks and Recreation Department tried to do management, but it was hit-and-miss.”

Fearful of what a bike trail would mean for the tarplant and concerned about restoration efforts, the California Native Plant Society in the summer of 2007 sued the city of Santa Cruz over violations of the ESHA and Critical Habitat designations for Arana Gulch, with the Santa Cruz Sierra Club and Friends of Arana Gulch in support. Judge Paul Burdick ruled in favor of the city in November 2007; the decision stood on appeal in January 2008.

The obvious irony in this project is that environmental groups usually support sustainable transportation measures like bike paths. The difference is that this path cuts directly through protected habitat that is technically the last of its kind, since the tarplant native to Santa Cruz is found nowhere else on earth.

The tarplant arises throughout this project’s history as a roadblock to the bike path many residents did want, but what’s so important about it?

It’s more than just the plant itself that has value, though Patricia Matejcek, founder of Friends of Arana Gulch and a Sierra Club member, paints this picture of it: “The tar plant really should be recognized as a small sunflower since it’s related, but it’s wonderfully fragrant and such a survivor that you just have to give it your heart. It doesn’t bloom until late in the summer, when it’s often the only green thing out there, and the tar, the resin that it produces as a protection, is so wonderfully fragrant when you touch it. It’s a combination of Christmas trees and tangerine peels. It’s lovely.”

This certainly makes one want to experience that fragrance, but as conservationists point out, the reason for saving the tarplant is bigger than that.

“What a lot of people have difficulty understanding is that they think it’s just about a plant or an animal, but life on earth is all connected,” shared Debbie Bulger, California Native Plant Society member and former editor of the Sierra Club’s Ventana magazine. “It’s like a sweater unraveling. You start pulling pieces of yarn and keep unraveling and then there’s not much left.”

Fallouts And Factions

The environmental groups that fought the east-west bike path did propose alternatives, such as a path around the habitat, a path through nearby Frederick Street Park and the harbor, and support for projects already planned, such as the coastal rail trail, proposed seismic retrofits of the Murray Street bridge and improvements to Soquel Avenue.

In the end, the proposed alternatives were either deemed infeasible or rejected for not providing the same protection for cyclists.

Environmental and bicycling groups weren’t the only parties facing off over the path. Residents and even members of environmental groups working to stop the path became frustrated by the long list of issues identified and renegotiated over many years. The Arana Gulch question polarized the members of the Sierra Club, with some supporting the leadership committee and others calling for change at the top, leading to political upheaval in the Club significant enough to warrant an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2010.

Arana Gulch Bike Path Approved

In 2011, the Coastal Commission approved the master plan for Arana Gulch with a set of conditions. The paved path, now situated north-south, should be moved slightly west; new light installations should be limited to the entrances; and the city should create a Habitat Management Plan and a management working group.

That management portion of the master plan is the reason cows will soon be re-introduced to the Arana Gulch property in fenced-off areas—a measure that Friends of Arana Gulch, the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society all support. These mammalian grass mowers will chew away non-native grasses, allowing native plants to grow.

Tarplant fans are hoping the new management plan will help restore the Santa Cruz tarplant populations, which have been dwindling for years. According to Friends of Arana Gulch, the 2014 season marked the lowest count of tarplant populations in the area on record. The group says the drop is likely due to drought conditions combined with inconsistent management measures.

For bicycle advocates, the new trail provides incentive for more people to get out of their cars. “I am very proud and happy to see the project completed,” writes Micah Posner, former director of People Power and current Santa Cruz councilmember. “To me, it is a great bike path and a great symbol of our community's commitment to a low energy future that is easier on the world's climate.”

Not to be missed on Wednesday is the new 340-foot suspension bridge over Hagemann Gulch. This “stress ribbon” connector between Broadway and the new path doesn’t interfere with the ecosystem in the gulch below. Standing on the bridge, one can feel its cables sway, observe birds of all types, and be transported far away from the noise of cars and human life down the street.

Via the new paved trail, all members of the community will be able to learn about Arana Gulch habitats through bilingual interpretive signs, ADA-compliant paths and programs. With its proximity to houses, schools and an occupational rehabilitation facility, Arana Gulch provides both structured and curiosity-based educational opportunities.

Being there, knowing that today’s Arana Gulch is the product of so much effort, one can’t help but feel gratitude toward all those who contributed something to the final vision and made it possible to enjoy this natural oasis, whether for recreation, mental vacation or transportation.


with live music, refreshments and tours
Park at Santa Cruz Bible Church, 440 Frederick St., or Our Lady of the Sea Church, 515 Frederick St., Santa Cruz
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, 2-4pm
Free bicycle valet parking provided by People Power of Santa Cruz County
City of Santa Cruz Arana Gulch blog

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Left unprinted was the fact that even bicyclists who had supported a "path" are now calling the project an "abomination." We used to have a greenbelt. Now most of Arana Gulch is a gentrified park, with a half mile of 8' wide paved bike routes, a mile of 2' wide graded shoulders of those routes, a 1,000 square foot concrete bridge abutment, one and a half miles of four and a half foot high barbed wire fencing, plugs of concrete for the fence posts, water lines buried in the prairie soil, a back flow device, soon to appear water troughs, two bollards, benches and signs to read, 15 directional signs for bicyclists, and eight oak trees pruned to look neat and tidy, like street trees. No longer a natural area or open space, as designated in the City's 2030 General Plan. (Update: today the contractor removed three of the bright yellow directional signs shown in your picture...guess even the City realized how bad the place looked and how the signs hollered "transportation project" which the City sold to the Coastal Commission as an interpretive trail through an ESHA, "dependent on the resource"). For pictures of what really happened go here: and here: and here:


The fencing is just awful.


While humans have gained a new playground, a bicycle shortcut and a tarplant zoo, Nature has lost over 200,000 square feet of critical habitat for an endangered species. Each gain for humans is a loss for Nature, Nature that is necessary for humans to continue to live on this planet.

Humans decry habitat loss and species extinction due to climate change, yet continue to behave as if "Homo sapiens" can live independently as the only species on the planet.

Nature has other plans.

Aphrodite speaks on behalf of the gods:
We are not extremely sorry for the woes of men. We laugh in heaven.
We that walk on Olympus and the steep sky,
And under our feet the lightning barks like a dog:
What we desire, we do. I am the power of Love.
In future days men will become so powerful
That they seem to control the heavens and the earth,
They seem to understand the stars and all science --
Let them beware. Something is lurking hidden.
There is always a knife in the flowers. There is always a lion just beyond the firelight.

Robinson Jeffers (The Cretan Woman) [1954]