Quick Take:

With the goal of creating an active, vibrant and walkable downtown featuring a mix of shops, restaurants, housing and office spaces that still maintains the area’s historic character, the downtown plan goes to the Watsonville City Council for a vote next Tuesday.

As cities around the country grapple with how to balance development with preservation, a plan that would pave the way for future growth in downtown Watsonville is moving closer to approval.

The plan, almost four years in the making, goes to the Watsonville City Council for a vote Tuesday after being green-lit last month by the city’s planning commission.

The downtown specific plan is a guide to long-term development of the city’s downtown district. The wheels were put in motion in July 2019 with a focus on establishing a clear vision for the future of downtown (an area comprising approximately 195 acres) while also considering its historic origins.

The goal? To create an active, vibrant and walkable downtown featuring a mix of shops, restaurants, housing and office spaces that still maintains the area’s historic character.

To meet those goals, the plan lays out ways to encourage businesses to open downtown and incentivize developers to build affordable housing, according to Justin Meek, principal planner for the City of Watsonville.

That includes clearing a path for more multistory mixed-use buildings (combining residential and commercial) through both new construction and what’s known as adaptive reuse of historic buildings — that is, repurposing existing buildings for new uses. (Think turning a former bank into apartments, for example.)

“This is really laying out the vision over the long term, the next 30 years or so,” said Meek.

Watsonville plaza on Dec. 15, 2020.

If you go

Watsonville downtown plan meeting

The plan will go before the city council at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Watsonville Civic Plaza, 275 Main St.

More information about the plan and next steps can be found on the city’s website.

View the full plan here.

Major objectives of the plan — and how it would address these — include:

Creating a downtown that’s both pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly: The plan calls for reducing traffic on Main Street to one lane each direction while also restoring two-way traffic on East Lake Avenue and East Beach Street. Another recommendation includes the addition of paseos and alleyways in the area around the former Gottschalks building at 407 Main St. to make it more accessible to pedestrians. This would also serve to make it easier to walk to the Watsonville Transit Center on the corner of West Lake Avenue and Rodriguez Street.

Encouraging businesses to set up shop downtown: The plan calls for reducing the number of required parking spots for businesses while also streamlining the process for getting permits for new projects. Instead of having to go through the sometimes-complex process of a public hearing in front of the city’s planning commission, certain projects could be approved administratively.

Building more affordable housing and protecting existing housing: This would be done in part by restricting condominium conversions and expanding the city’s existing owner-occupied and rental housing rehabilitation programs, which offers financial assistance to low-income homeowners — or landlords who rent to low-income tenants — to pay for repairs. Another aspect of this is working with nonprofits and affordable-housing developers, as well as creating more incentives for developers for new housing projects. This includes a projected total of 3,886 new dwelling units over the next 25 years, according to Meek.

The downtown specific plan was created through the work and input of Watsonville city staff, elected and appointed officials, community leaders and the public. Development of the plan has been done while city and county officials grapple with how to combat rising housing prices, a lack of affordable housing and efforts to increase transit options, among other considerations.

While it doesn’t actually implement these changes, the plan does set forth a vision for city leaders, residents and developers — and lays out adjustments to land-use ordinances, zoning regulations and other steps needed to bring the vision to fruition, said Meek. Basically, he said, it sets the parameters for how the city would like to grow, but the actual development would be done by private developers.

“The intention is to unlock the development potential,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the developers who have expressed interest in this will move forward [once it’s passed].”

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Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...