By Brian Seals, Santa Cruz Sentinel
April 24, 2005

When Peter Dwares looks outside the building he has owned for more than 25 years, the Capitola Mercantile, and takes in the surrounding village, he generally likes what he sees.

He likes to see the people that stream into Capitola Village, especially on warm summer weekends. But he envisions something more.

Rather than cars and sometimes brutally loud motorcycles at a near stand-still along the Capitola Esplanade, the San Francisco businessman sees the possibility for something more — like a plaza sans autos with outside dining restaurants.

“If a few little things were focused on I think there could be a kinder, gentler village,” says Dwares, who has refurbished retail centers from Washington to California and who owns a Capitola home. He bought the Mercantile in 1979 and since 1980 has hosted “Uncle Nathan’s Day” in Capitola, a wintery holiday event for underprivileged children.

Dwares isn’t alone in his desire for change in the village.

“There has been talk about closing the esplanade, but it has not gone very far,” City Councilman Dennis Norton said, adding he favors such a plan at some point in the future.

“The killer in the village is the automobile,” Norton said. “It takes away from the charm and character of the village.”

Norton and others support building a parking garage at the municipal lot behind City Hall, a move many believe would bring flexibility to what could be done along the esplanade. Ask around the village, and there are plenty of ideas for making it a more enjoyable destination.

“I think it has been about the same, and I think that is unfortunate,” said Councilman Kirby Nicol, reflecting on the health of the village over the last 20 years. “I think we could make it so much better.”

He and some other council members say allowing more bed-and-breakfast establishments would help attract business to the village more often during the year.

But others say that, at least during the busy months, the area is as vibrant as can be.

“I don’t think, especially in the summer the village is lacking vibrancy,” said Car in Hannah, owner of the Craft Gallery. She said more is needed in the winter months, like some kinds of activities for children, to lure visitors during the off-season.

Talk of a hotel

In February, the City Council backed off a plan to allow side-walk vendors to offer their wares in the village after merchants complained that doing so would hurt their businesses.

The idea was to create a vibe along the esplanade where mild weather draws visitors ranging from day-trippers seeking refuge from Silicon Valley heat to Europeans on a West Coast jaunt.

Earlier this month, the City Council approved moving the summer-time Farmer’s Market held each Thursday to a more visible area — from the parking lot of the Capitola Theater to the street fronting the park area at the end of the esplanade.

Also, there have been discussions about capitalizing on the wildly popular Wednesday night concerts held during the summer with a Thursday outdoor movie night at the Esplanade Park, Norton said, echoing a trend that has emerged in many cities around the country in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Capitola Theater is in escrow and there is talk of a boutique=style hotel coming to the site, Norton said.

Few merchants or council folk can be found who don’t say a hotel on that side would be a boost, especially in the quiet winter months.

“It makes Capitola more of a year-round destination,” said restaurateur Lee Walters, who owns two village eateries, The Lido and the Stockton Bridge Grille. “Maybe that would be the catalyst.”

But any discussion about the village’s future runs into the problem common to just about any beach city: Cars.

For example: part of the city’s master plan for the village calls for sprucing up Esplanade Park by adding a string of features, including a bandstand.

“The problem is we can’t do that because of the parking,” said Nicola, who was elected last year.

Nichol would also support closing the esplanade off to traffic if a garage were built.

So would business owners like Walters, who said it was worth evaluating.

“If that happens I think they should periodically close off traffic on the esplanade and see what happens,” he said.

Norton points to the pedestrian village in Vail, Colorado, as an example of how such a plan could work. In Vail, a pedestrian village is enforced at a station known as “Checkpoint Charlie,” said Jackie Ogden, a code enforcement officer for the town. Delivery trucks are allowed only before 8:30 a.m. Visitors can park in the garage and exit into the village and a bus center, she said.

“Once people park, they can get to anywhere they want to,” Ogden said.

In Capitola, the average daily traffic count along the esplanade in May 2004 was 3,700 vehicles per day, a number that swells at the peak of the tourist season. In August 2004, the average daily traffic count along nearby Capitola Avenue was 7,400 vehicles per day, said Steve Jesberg of the Capitola Public Works Department.

But not everybody in Capitola is as disenchanted enough with the traffic to close it off from the esplanade.

Hannah is skeptical and suspects a parking garage would divert tourists looking for a place to park into nearby neighborhoods inste4ad.

“I have some mixed emotions about it, because we have an enormous number of people who live in the village,” Hannah said.

Councilwoman Stephanie Harlan also is skeptical about such an idea, saying the village needs all the parking it has.

“I don’t think it serves the village well,” she said of the parking garage idea.

Maintaining the Image

While trying to make the village a sustainable tourist draw, some council members say it is important to maintain its charm and appeal for locals who stroll down to the waterfront.

“We always have to remember it is its own neighborhood and people live down there,” said Harlan. “They have to park down there. We want locals to enjoy their beach and their wharf.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, the cars were already backed up on a cloudy day waiting to get into the village. Down at the beach, Alyssa Levitan of Palo Alto said the village offered the convenience and amenities that make it a perfect stop. Levitan said she comes to Capitola Beach about five or six times a year. She uses the parking lot behind City Hall.

Art Durand of Santa Cruz walked the esplanade with his toddler nephew Hayden Paul Buell. He said the village was a good place to bring younger children.

“It’s safe for him,” he said, nodding in the direction of his nephew. “Downtown (Santa Cruz) sometimes is not a place for little kids.”

He said he made three passes around the esplanade before finding a place to park.

The parking in some ways is a boon and a challenge. Parking meter revenue in the city amounts to roughly $500,000 annually, according to the Capitola Police Department. Citations from parking ticket revenue produce about $531,000 annually.

While the plaza idea is likely years away, other efforts are in full swing to add to the village’s ambiance.

“We’re getting there, it just takes time,” Norton said.