February 24, 2024
Work will strengthen and enlarge landmark structure, popular with tourists and locals for generations

It was arguably the most dramatic image from the powerful storms that battered Northern California’s coastline in January: The Capitola Wharf, an 855-foot-long landmark that dates back to 1857, torn in half by pounding waves.

Photos of the damage to the popular Santa Cruz County waterfront attraction went around the world.

The heavily damaged Capitola Wharf juts into Monterey Bay on Thursday Sept. 7, 2023. The damage sustained in huge storms on Jan. 5, 2023 will be repaired as part of a $7.7 million project that begins this month. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“People here were just bawling that day, watching it happen,” said Capitola resident Gerry Jensen. “They were brokenhearted. I heard things like ‘I used to go fishing with my grandfather out there.’”

Now the seas are calm. And in a major rebirth for the seaside town whose economy depends on tourism and the beach, construction crews are set to begin work next week on a $7.7 million project to rebuild and reopen the wharf.

Workers will rip up and replace nearly all of the wooden decking and railings on the beleaguered structure. They plan to widen from 20 feet to 36 feet the half nearest to the shore that is particularly vulnerable to big waves.

Where now only three wooden pilings prop up each section, crews will increase it to six, driving 120 stronger fiberglass pilings 20 feet into the Monterey Bay sea floor, and wrapping other wooden pilings in protective composite sleeves. They will repair the 40-foot chasm in the structure, with crews starting on the shore, and slowly moving forward to upgrade every few feet of pilings and decking, like a train inching down the tracks.

More than 120 pilings on the Capitola Wharf will be replaced or retrofitted during the rebuilding project. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

Work is expected to be completed next summer.

”People really care,” said Jessica Kahn, Capitola’s public works director. “Since Jan. 5, we have gotten calls nearly every day: people from out of state, even from out of the country, wanting to know when it will be rebuilt. We’ve had to write a script for the receptionist.”

Plans also call for a grander entrance, a new boat launch area, new restrooms, free mounted binocular stations, and signs about Monterey Bay, its wildlife and history.

But there is one big caveat.

Strong El Niño conditions are forming in the Pacific Ocean this summer. Another winter of lashing storms and 20-foot seas like California experienced eight months ago could delay the work — or even further damage the wharf that has adorned generations of postcards and tourist photos.

“Maybe it will do fine for 10 or 20 or 30 years,” said Gary Griggs, a professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz. “But if we have another big winter this year all bets are off.”

Capitola Wharf has been seriously damaged before. In 1983, big storms smashed 35 feet off its end and destroyed a 30-foot section in the middle. Before that, a 200-foot section failed during the winter of 1913, stranding a fisherman on the end who had to be rescued.

The Capitola Wharf has been closed since it was severely damaged in a storm on Jan. 5, 2023. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“Anything we put in the ocean is going to fail sooner or later,” Griggs said. “Under the right conditions — big waves and high tides — it is going to get battered.”

The Pacific Ocean already has risen 8 inches over the past century due to sea level rise. Another foot is likely in the next 25 years, scientists say. And climate change is making storms stronger because as they travel across warmer oceans, they draw in more water vapor and heat.

Some coastal features damaged by last January’s storms aren’t coming back.

In March, state parks crews demolished the pier at Seacliff State Beach, about 2 miles from Capitola, for good.

That 500-foot-long wooden structure, built in 1930, was best known as the connection between sweeping sandy beaches of Santa Cruz County and the SS Palo Alto, a Word War I-era steamship known as the “cement ship.” Seacliff State Beach has reopened, but state parks officials are still planning how to repair its oceanfront campsites.

President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Capitola and Seacliff in the days after the storm.

Not far up the coast, the storms caused major erosion and cliff failures along Santa Cruz’s West Cliff Drive. On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council is scheduled to consider a plan to repair and reopen half of the road, from Columbia Street to Woodrow Avenue, to two-way traffic by next spring, with the rest, to Almar Avenue, likely to be finished in a year or so.

Even though the Capitola Wharf is almost certain to fail again one day, giving up isn’t really an option.

“That wharf and the businesses along the esplanade are what drives Capitola’s economy,” Griggs said. “The city council and mayor wouldn’t be very popular if they said, ‘No, we aren’t going to fix it.’”

Community volunteer Gerry Jensen, left, Capitola City Manager Jamie Goldstein and Public Works Director Jessica Kahn inspect the storm-damaged Capitola Wharf on Sept. 7, 2023. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

One of the main waterfront businesses, Zelda’s restaurant, suffered $500,000 in damage when huge waves smashed through the walls, sending tables and chairs into the street.

The restaurant reopened April 19. A 600-pound wooden beam from the wharf, with long rusty iron bolts protruding from one side, is mounted on the ceiling above the sparkling new floors and tables.

“That’s the one that came through the window,” said kitchen manager Josh Whitby, pointing at the beam.

The money for the wharf renovation is coming from Congress, a local sales tax passed in 2016, and state funds. A group of local residents has banded together to raise $250,000 to add more features.

They hope to pay for new lighting, new benches, public art, shade structures, a new fish cleaning station and other amenities, including colorful tile work near the entrance similar to the bright colors of the 1920s-era Venetian Court apartments next door.

A large structural piece of the Capitola Wharf remains in Zelda’s by the Beach as Kitchen Manager Josh Whitby takes in the progress he and his staff have made cleaning up the storm damage in the Capitola Village restaurant. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Zelda’s kitchen manager Josh Whitby stands under the roughly 600-pound structural beam that fell from the Capitola Wharf during a huge storm Jan. 5, 2023 and smashed through the restaurant’s window. The beam is now mounted in the refurbished restaurant. (PK Hattis – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

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“We have an opportunity to make it better, something we can be really proud of,” Jensen said. The extras, he added “are jewelry on the wharf.”

So far, the group, known as the Capitola Wharf Enhancement Project, has raised $150,000, said Jensen, one of its leaders. The city says about $450,000 in other upgrades, including beach showers, a storage area for a lifeguard Jet Ski, and other features could be added if they can find the money.

A public ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the project is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22, at the wharf.

“The wharf represents the heart and soul of the community,” said City Manager Jamie Goldstein. “It’s what made Capitola Capitola. Everyone is so eager to see this project happen. We are going to make it stronger than it has ever been.”

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