by Jim Hight
Leroy Zerlang was steaming like a full crab pot on a Friday afternoon in March.
I had told the burly skipper that I was doing a story on waterfront redevelopment. But before I could ask him anything, he questioned me: "Who have you talked to so far?" he demanded from inside the Madaket ticket-house at the foot of C Street.
Leroy Zerlang and Ray Hillman stand next to a vintage boat stored inside the historic Buhne Building. (Photo by Brandi Easter)
Without waiting for an answer, he named several city officials whom he imagined had been feeding me happy talk about the harbor. He was right, I'd talked to all of them, the last not 10 minutes before.
I mumbled something like, "Wanna hear your side." But he stalked past me, walked out onto the sunny dock, and got right to the point.
"We've been their goddamned tourist industry for 25 years. We're the ones who've brought people down here from the highway for all these years. Now we're going to have to f----ng rent from someone else!"
Zerlang and fellow maritime buffs have operated the Madaket since the 1970s. He and his brother Larry run the Crab Shack, a waterfront staple. Last year, when the city-owned lot where the Crab Shack sits came up for redevelopment, Zerlang and his associates in the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum had a shot at being part of it.
1947 Lloyd Stine photo of H.H. Buhne building, courtesy of Humboldt County Historical Society
Their backer, Francis Carrington, proposed a complex of offices, retail shops and maritime uses. He promised to put the museum up in the H.H. Buhne Building and lease prime space to the Crab Shack. But in February the Eureka City Council voted 3-2 in favor of a four-story hotel.
Zerlang got so worked up over my inquiry that he paced back and forth and bellowed like a wrestler. "If you have a 'Victorian Seaport' and you're proud of it, you ought to save your history ... not replace it with a motel and T-shirt shops."
"Amen," said Bob Cummings, who had walked up and joined our conversation.
"You tell him, Bob," Zerlang said, striding off to answer the phone.
"We've got enough damned motels up here," Cummings told me. "Tourists don't want to look at motels. ... When I was a kid growing up in Berkeley, we'd go to Santa Cruz on vacation. We didn't go there to stay in a motel. We went there to walk on the long pier and have a seafood dinner."
Cummings later told me why he hangs around the harbor so much: to run a rehab operation for feral cats. "I feed them and try to return them into homes, after spaying and neutering, of course."
This pair of waterfronters bent my ear with more tales of intrigue and betrayal on the harbor: how tourists can't even find the Maritime Museum since Second Street was cut off by the new library; how the city has taken over the waterfront through redevelopment purchases.
Eventually they worked their way around to some news that met with their satisfaction: The city's going to relocate the 96-year-old the Buhne Building onto a nearby slice of city land, renovate the outside and lease it to the Maritime Museum.
In the building's place, Gary and Margaret Stone, owners of the Thunderbird Inn, hope to build parking for Eureka's first waterfront hotel.
Like it or not, waterfront hotels from San Diego to Seattle attract tourists. Eureka would likely be no exception if people could spend a weekend by the water, especially if they could walk next door to "Eureka Fisherman's Wharf."
Where the massive old "fisherman's building" now sits, Dolores Vellutini and John Ash propose an attraction that could anchor a new visitor-friendly waterfront. A boardwalk, cafés, Old Town-style shops, $350,000 condos upstairs with private boat slips on the water. And directly north of Globe Imports, they hope to build a three-story office building.
Dolores Vellutini poses behind the scale model of the
proposed Fisherman's Wharf between D and F streets.
(Photo by Patty Wilson)
And in both directions, other renovations and developments are in the works or on the drawing boards.
The city is rehabilitating the small boat basin at the foot of Commercial Street, and building new docks for fishermen just west of the Madaket dock. Blue Ox Millworks over on X Street is trying to create a living craft museum on waterfront land.
And Zerlang's Crab Shack may become part of a "see-and-sea" project that the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association is proposing on the site of the old Landing/Lazio's building.
Of course, it could all end up as just another picturesque dream like the World Wildlife Museum, the eight-story Radisson Hotel and other ideas that have floated in and out of the waterfront of Eureka's imagination.
But don't miss the subtext in Zerlang's outrage.
After lying dormant for decades as a carcass of its former self, Eureka's inner-reach waterfront is so close to making its long-awaited leap forward that two serious development teams competed for the right to spend millions on a waterfront project.
"In the next two years the community will see more construction and rehabilitation on the waterfront than they can imagine," predicted David McGinty, Eureka's harbormaster and director of community services. "It's happening."
But in interviews with business owners, city leaders and harbor habitués, it's apparent that there's serious disagreement about what actually ought to happen.
Many Old Town merchants and property owners are passionate supporters of the Stone's waterfront hotel, the Fisherman's Wharf and the other projects.
"I like the idea of having top quality lodging on the waterfront," said Susan Fox, an artist and gallery owner who chairs Eureka Main Street's Design Review Committee. "I like the hotel's faux Victorian design and U-shaped building. ... And they've said their courtyard gardens will be accessible to the public." The Stones have also said they'll make parking available to non-patrons during daytime hours and times of low occupancy.
"We definitely have some expansion plans in mind if these projects go forward," said Bob Maxon, owner of Globe Imports.
Other merchants and citizens are more critical of the emerging waterfront scenario. Some would only speak confidentially, but they touched on a couple of common themes.
Some also raised issues that the city has to one degree or another begun to tackle.
Zerlang's pal Ray Hillman, for example, is one of many who are adamant about historical and design integrity in new projects. "We need to preserve and maintain the atmosphere that's traditionally been a part of that area. There's precious little left."
A Maritime Museum board member, tour operator and professional historian, Hillman is excited about the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association's potential creation at the foot of C Street: a reproduction of the original steamship transit building, which later became Lazio's Fish Co.
This survivor of the working port would combine dock and workspace for fishermen with an open fish market for consumers and perhaps even the Crab Shack.
"Tourists will eat that up," said Hillman. "They come out here from the Midwest, Nevada or Arizona looking for something totally different. If they find a real nautical atmosphere here, they're not going to be too anxious to move on."
Hillman sketched out the deal emerging with the city for the Buhne Building. "We hope the city will move it, fix the outside of the structure and give the Maritime Museum a 99-year lease."
The H.H. Buhne Co. sold agricultural equipment out of the corrugated iron-sided building. With its faded green walls canted like an artist's perspective study, "it's waterfront vernacular," said Hillman, "the sort of structure that you'd expect to see in a waterfront area. It's better than 90 percent original," including a large mezzanine. With a new roof and other repairs it "will lend itself in its simplicity very well to the Maritime Museum."
Hillman also hopes to see a historic ship set up in the harbor as a floating museum. "Not the Midway, which has nothing to do with the history of this area," but a ship like the 400-foot lightship that he and Zerlang were eyeing before a Bay Area non-profit scooped it up. Now, he said, they're investigating "some old whaling vessels that came out of Humboldt Bay."
The idea of additional greenspace on the waterfront appeals to many, and there's broad support in Old Town for a waterfront park for families and events.
"The City of Eureka ought to save some of this land for a public park like Marina Green in San Francisco," said Bruce Braly, owner of Humboldt's Finest, a fine arts store on Second Street near the Gazebo.
Several other Old Town sources echoed Braly's sentiment. But wary of criticizing development plans backed by city leaders, they would only speak confidentially.
One local architect who follows waterfront development offered an entire alternative scenario:
"Instead of giving developers a cheap deal on the land, the city should keep the land, clean it up and leave it open until there's money to develop a promenade. Don't build anything out farther than the occupied buildings that are there now. Put Old-Town-type facades on the back of the old Co-op building, Globe Imports and other First Street buildings.... Then that becomes your commercial waterfront. It's connected to Old Town, and you have a large sunny open area that could be used for farmers' markets and putting tents up for the Dixieland Jazz Festival."
In the city's recently updated general plan, open space is a priority for the waterfront from F Street east to Adorni Center. But as our source noted, the only public space envisioned in the core C Street-to-F Street waterfront will be in the shadow of the two- and three-story buildings built right up to the tidelands line. Combined with a northwest wind, "that will be a very unfriendly microclimate."
The city plans to build a 30-foot-wide public boardwalk where the old pilings and docks are. The location "has always been in shadow and it will remain always in shadow," said Eureka Fisherman's Wharf architect John Ash. He noted that the width of the parcel, a half-block, made it economically impractical to set the buildings farther inland.
Propane heaters could be used to warm waterfront dining areas and condo balconies, but boardwalk strollers will need to bundle up.
City staff and council members defended the build-out scenario on economic grounds. "It was never the intention of the city to own these lands as public lands," said Council member Frank Jager. "Commercial purchase and development is an economic imperative and necessity. ... We could take the redevelopment funds and turn it all into a park if we wanted to, but that would be shortsighted. We need economic development."
As to the concern about poor planning, city staff and council members pointed to the Waterfront Revitalization Task Force. But that committee met only a few times in 1993 and reviewed only public works projects.
The city's general plan update did cover the waterfront. Citizens' input came in through surveys and poorly attended public hearings, according to Director of Community Development Kevin Hamblin, but there was no citizens' advisory committee.
All the private waterfront developments will go through the usual public hearings: Design Review, Planning Commission, City Council, perhaps California Coastal Commission. An environmental impact report on the Fisherman's Wharf project will be available on the third floor of city hall for comment soon.
But people terminally skeptical about the waterfront probably find all this rather abstract.
Since Bob Halvorsen went bankrupt in 1986 with $2 million in city money and a briefcase full of hotel renderings, Humboldt Bay residents have been tantalized by one grand-sounding waterfront project after another: That Wildlife Museum, the eight-story Radisson Hotel, upscale senior housing. They've all quietly slipped off into the sunset.
Some blame the city for bungling redevelopment. And Halvorsen's rusting re-bars certainly look like a monument to bad judgment.
But the city has worked to solve tough issues that came up as they tried to facilitate the waterfront's transformation.
Since it was first dredged in 1881, the inner-reach waterfront has been a place of commerce, with bars, brothels and gambling dens as well as docks and maritime industries.
"When I was a kid it was hard for us to find a place were we could even go fishing," remembers Jager. "The fishing industry and fish processors that were there in the '50s and '60s, they wouldn't let you go down there."
The region's economy changed as traditional industries moved away from the inner reach. And by the 1980s many waterfront properties were abandoned, according to city records. Fires, dry rot and insects took a steady toll on buildings; several collapsed.
Then there was the tidelands issue.
In a tradition that goes back to the dawn of Mediterranean shipping, port landowners filled their properties to push back the high-water line. In the 1970s and 1980s the city went through an epic legal process to establish tideland boundaries.
"We needed to know what was public and what was private," said harbormaster McGinty. "As long as those clouded titles existed it was pretty hard to make waterfront land available for development or enhancement."
The "agreement line" separating private property from public tidelands also separated some waterfront landowners from portions of their land. To keep their parcels intact many had to start making lease payments into a tidelands trust fund. Resentment endures to this day, with some owners blaming tidelands conflicts for derailing what could have been an earlier wave of redevelopment.
But the biggest change in the waterfront development scenario occurred bit by bit over the last six years as the city spent about $1.5 million in redevelopment money to buy much of the First Street waterfront. It also foreclosed on the Halvorsen parcel in 1996. Its unintended investment in that property has cost, with interest, more than $4 million.
"The key was to acquire the properties, get them out of bankruptcy and get them cleared up as far as title is concerned," said Council member Lance Madsen. "Now developers only have to deal with one entity. That's the big difference."
There are still potential roadblocks.
Toxic contamination from industrial uses has stopped development on some parcels; the extent of pollution remains a wild card for the projects taking shape now.
Parking is a problem. Old Town is already tight, at least by local standards. There's no parking in the Fisherman's Wharf proposal, and Ash said plainly that he expects the city to pony up for its first-ever parking structure. The city is studying the parking situation, has identified some potential locations for a structure, but new parking isn't even in the design stage, according to City Engineer Tom Herzberger.
So far only public dollars are on the line. Vellutini and Ash have certainly put in lots of time and some out-of-pocket cash, meeting monthly with city staff since March 1996 to work out details.
Their plans shifted early on when they determined that the old fishermen's building on the site couldn't be renovated as originally hoped.
They've struck a tentative deal with Hum-Boats and are negotiating with other prospective tenants. But Vellutini is careful to note that "The finances are not complete yet. As I've always said, it has to pencil out after all is said and done. If not, obviously the project can't go forward."
Still, it's hard not to be optimistic, especially standing in the place from which I surveyed the waterfront one recent afternoon. I was in front of the Maritime Museum on Second Street. The sun was hot enough to coax the smell of pitch from the bishop pines by the railroad tracks below. A light northwest wind wafted in.
To the east a crystalline blue sky touched a parade of deep-green hills cleft by the ridges of Freshwater and Jacoby creek basins. A family strolled on the waterfront path toward the Adorni Center and kayakers paddled west in the sea-green water.
Fishing boats, yachts, tugboats and the U.S. Coast Guard Sapelo rested in the Woodley Island Marina. Egrets stalked the mudflats and thick riparian foliage leaned over the inner reach. Even the Louisiana-Pacific pulp mill fit the tableau, its steam plumes drifting south like a windswept banner of the region's forest products industry.
On the mainland tiny figures stood fishing from a pier. Victorian rooflines poked up from the city streets, and I couldn't help wondering what the Victorian Seaport will really be like.
Who will set up shop on its promenade, eat in its cafés, line up for round-the-bay train rides to the Samoa Cookhouse and pump the old foghorns at the new Maritime Museum?
What open spaces will be designed for people who aren't hotel patrons, condo owners or waterfront diners? Where the heck are they all going to park? And will there be a place for the Crab Shacks, cat lovers and other waterfront characters?
Comments? E-mail the Journal: firstname.lastname@example.org
The North Coast Journal Table of Contents