Watsonville plaza on Dec. 15, 2020.
Watsonville on Dec. 15, 2020. The city is in the process of crafting a new plan for its downtown, which has many historic buildings but also many vacant storefronts.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Watsonville citizens clear on favorite downtown features. Could six new neighborhoods be in their future?

A survey asking Watsonville residents what they want out of their downtown area came back with the farmers’ market and city plaza rising above other favorites. Now, a planning firm will take that feedback and brainstorm.

When asked what they loved about their downtown, Watsonville residents were clear: the weekly farmers’ market and the city plaza. Now the city must figure out how to enhance its best features and bring other parts of downtown into the 2020s.

It’s all part of the Downtown Watsonville Specific Plan, a roadmap in the making that will guide the city’s downtown development for years to come. Based on the work done so far, the city could end up with a downtown area that has six neighborhoods, each pedestrian-friendly and with a distinct personality.

On Tuesday night, local leaders crafting the plan heard about the likes and dislikes of hundreds of Watsonville residents, as well as a vision for six unique downtown neighborhoods, developed by Raimi & Associates, a firm hired to oversee the plan.

A survey of 666 Watsonville-area residents — most of them frequent downtown visitors or residents between 25 and 64 years old and of Latinx or Spanish origin — was meant to capture how locals see the downtown area.

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The weekly farmers’ market was “overwhelmingly one of the main reasons why people visit downtown,” followed by the plaza and restaurants, the survey found.

But residents want more variety in the types of businesses and dining options available downtown, as well as more mixed-use and residential development.

The number of vacant storefronts — about 20% in downtown before the pandemic, according to city manager Matt Huffaker — and underused historic buildings from the 1880s to 1920s also present opportunities for modernizing downtown, respondents said.

When asked about their key concerns in downtown, survey-takers listed homelessness and mental health-related issues, as well as pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

Despite their desire for new businesses and development in the heart of Watsonville, many also urged the city to withstand the pressures of gentrification and whitewashing of Watsonville’s rich cultural history.

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Based on those comments, the city’s consultant drafted a starting point: a downtown area that has six neighborhoods.

  • Historic Downtown Core: Includes Main Street, Watsonville Plaza and many of the city’s historic buildings, some of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Civic Core: Includes Civic Plaza, the historic fire station, police station and Post Office site.
  • Commercial Flex: An “amorphous” area that helps transition from the obvious downtown core to residential areas via Brennan, Union and Rodriguez streets.
  • Workplace/Industrial: The factory and light industrial area that includes the Historic Depot and was originally serviced by rail — and would be again, since it is adjacent to the Rail-Trail path. This area also includes a segment of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail along Walker Street.
  • East Neighborhood: Area east of Rodriguez Street that includes the Martinelli’s facility, Bethel Tabernacle and residential areas, as well as some historic buildings.
  • West Neighborhood: Mixed-use area west of Rodriguez Street with significant residential areas.
A map of neighborhoods presented on Dec. 15, 2020 as Watsonville crafts its Downtown Specific Plan.
A map of neighborhoods presented on Dec. 15, 2020 as Watsonville crafts its Downtown Specific Plan for the future of the downtown area.
(Raimi & Associates for City of Watsonville )

Some areas could benefit from new uses for historic buildings, or just facelifts to those structures, while other neighborhoods have large, vacant lots that could be used for infill development or mixed-use projects. And still others have the kinds of cavernous warehouses that would work for creative offices, business incubators, breweries and coffee shops, the consultants said.

The point is to set parameters that will make Watsonville’s downtown a vibrant place attractive to businesses, residents and visitors.

All of those details will be ironed out between now and fall 2021, when the city will finalize its plans.

The city will be taking recommendations until Jan. 8, 2021, on the early priorities it has set for the specific plan.