Castle Rock Visitor Center Gets Green Light

The Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Sempervirens Fund's proposal for a new LEED-certified visitors center for Castle Rock State Park.

by Traci Hukill

Sept. 30, 2014—So long, dirt parking lot that turns into a mud pit in winter rains. Sayonara, stinky pit toilet. Toodle-oo, dark brown-and-green log cabin motif. With today's unanimous approval by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, the entryway to Castle Rock State Park stands ready to receive a complete makeover at the hands of Sempervirens Fund, one of the park's primary benefactors since its creation in 1968.

A paved parking lot with 90 spaces, flush toilets and drinking fountains could be in place by late 2015. Sleek, light-filled interpretive displays, a meeting room, ranger offices and a 60-seat outdoor amphitheater are also in the works for the $7.7 million project, which will be LEED-certified and bring a new esthetic to the park that serves the public of Silicon Valley along with Santa Cruz and the rest of eco-conscious coastal California.

"We want to make this the next generation of state parks," says Reed Holderman, executive director of Sempervirens Fund. "Some people in the park community say it's not a park unless it looks like the 1930s design. We want a park that looks like a 21st-century design. We have a different demographic now.

"It'd be great to have a net zero energy building that becomes a template for state parks."

Read Castle Rock Visitor Center A Welcome Development
Read A Revamp for Castle Rock
Read Paying to Play at State Parks

After constructing the visitor center, Sempervirens plans to hand over the facility to the California State Parks department, along with a $1 million stewardship fund. Holderman says the group is seeking a major donor to "build the visitor center and put their name on it." The Mercury News reports that former Hewlett-Packard executive Robert Kirkwood has donated $1.5 million to the project, bringing the total raised to $2 million.

A related item before the board today, also approved unanimously, will prohibit parking along the south side of Highway 35 for 300 feet on either side of the new entrance. State parks don't charge entry fees, but they do charge parking fees—in Castle Rock's case, $8 per car—and some critics are irked that free access to the park will in effect be lost. Wrote one commenter on the Mercury News article, "Entrance and parking fees at government built recreational facilities should be prohibited by law. It is unfair taxation and discriminates against lower income persons and against both the younger and the older park goer."

Asked about the parking/parking fee issue, Holderman points to safety considerations as well as a kind of consumer economics. "I think people objected to paying the $8 with the current park because the current park wasn't giving them anything," he says. "My theory is some of the people who did park outside the gate, if we give them something for their money—a parking lot, flush toilets, drinking water, maybe a cappuccino, maybe an app—they won't mind paying the $8."

Holderman says it's also part of making the park economically sustainable after its 2012 rescue from a statewide parks closure list. "Castle Rock was closed because it didn't have any attendance there and it didn't generate any income," he says. Sempervirens Fund, which played a vital role in establishing the park in 1968, stepped in to fund operating costs for three years.

Miles Standish, who served as head ranger at Castle Rock for decades, spoke in favor of the 300-foot parking prohibition. "State Parks tried this back in the '80s, and because of the lack of parking in the present parking lot, there was enough pressure from the public that they did not have enough parking. That's why Caltrans went back and opened it up," he told the board. "With the new facility there will be enough parking, so it shouldn't be an issue."

Parking along the north side of Highway 35 will be a matter for Santa Clara County Supervisors to consider, as the road forms the border between the two counties.

Supervisors McPherson, Leopold and Coonerty expressed enthusiasm for the project. Said Supervisor John Leopold, "This is a very sensitive proposal for the area. While it's some intensification, it's all for the good of encouraging people to interact with open spaces, so I really appreciate the sensitivity brought to the plan."

Homepage photo by ‪Grey3k‬.