History, Archaeology & Architecture

As California Historical Landmark 469 describes, the intersection of Water and Branciforte was an important part of the historically significant “Villa de Branciforte Site.” The site was founded in 1797 and annexed by the Town of Santa Cruz in 1905.

History of the Villa de Branciforte:

In 1797, the Marques de Branciforte, Viceroy of New Spain, founded a small city on this very spot. Yes, city! At the time, the Villa de Branciforte was designated one of the three cities of Alta California; the other two were San Jose and Los Angeles.

Branciforte recruited settlers to the Villa from the Mexican towns of Guadelajara and Guanajuato. He promised them tile-roofed houses and money to buy tools. But when they arrived, after their long trek, there were no houses. Disappointed, but not discouraged, they built their huts of split redwood and tule reeds. Eventually some cash arrived, and they persevered and built the adobe houses that lined North Branciforte Avenue — the mile long race track where they raced their horses. It was a lively place.

Looking back, it’s clear that the Villa de Branciforte did not become the promised city. But the early Mexican settlers did build a town and establish a government. They elected a mayor in 1802 in one of the first elections held in Alta California. The Villa existed for over a hundred years until it was annexed in 1905 by the recently founded City of Santa Cruz.

The Villa had a very different culture than the Mission across the river, which notably included mixed marriages between Mexican Californios, Spanish, and Native Peoples.  Here, voting rights were given to all during the period of Alta California, and the Padres from the Mission were very disapproving of the Villa’s more open society.  This aspect is one of many that makes the archeological resources buried beneath the old Villa’s blacktop very significant as separate from the surrounding areas.

Within the old Villa, the location for this proposed development has its own historical significance.  It was the site of Bolcoff Hill and the Cornelio Perez property, which sits directly across the street from the publicly owned “town square” — where the Argus used car lot is currently.  This shows that the proposed development site is central within the old Villa and likely holds an elevated significance of historical resources.

Because this site is archeologically significant, only above ground development should be allowed unless an actual archeological dig is first completed:

Any excavation at this site should first be an archeological excavation, NOT a development excavation that merely has an archeologist on site to collect and catalogue the compromised artifacts — as they are uncovered by earth movers — which often damages artifacts, as well as disallows for their specific context to be properly investigated.

The City recognizes this area as being unusually “archeologically sensitive.”  Yet, the current proposal by Novin indicates disregard for this important resource.  He intends to excavate deeply for an underground, 2-level parking garage, and in so doing — remove Bolcoff Hill and compromise the ability for us to someday properly understand this part of our history and how it uniquely functioned involving Native peoples, Spanish and Mexicans.  Destroying our ability to bring light to this part of our history is culturally inequitable.

The proposed architectural design for this project could not be less compatible with a neighborhood that sits at the gateway to the historic Villa de Branciforte area of Santa Cruz:

  • Even at a reduced and reasonable scale, which it’s obvious by now should be in this project’s future, it seems odd that this project — perhaps through its architectural design — wouldn’t visually pay tribute to the history of this part of Santa Cruz.
  • Why not build something that is compatible to this under-appreciated historical aspect of Santa Cruz?

This historic location must be honored and respected by the developers of 831 Water Street. Imagine this project, in its current form, with its current design, located at the heart of the Villa de Branciforte. The proposed glass and steel rectangles must be replaced by architecture that reflects the Mexican heritage of this site.