Quick Take:

Watsonville’s city council unanimously voted Tuesday night to approve a new 30-year vision to reinvigorate the city’s downtown. The goal is to transform the area into a vibrant hub of culture and commerce, complete with bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly streets and opportunities for new development. That vision rests on a plan for Caltrans to reduce Main Street from four lanes to two.

When discussing the future of downtown Watsonville, residents and officials point to the past. Downtown Watsonville, they say, used to be a bustling, lively city center, a destination. But, as is the case with many cities in the region, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left downtown in ruin and forced Watsonville to start anew. According to long-timers, it hasn’t been the same since.

“I would like to see that vitality return,” Watsonville City Councilmember Ari Parker said ahead of a unanimous vote Tuesday to approve a new 30-year vision plan for the city’s 196-acre downtown area, which staff, elected officials and the community have been working toward since at least 2019.

Formally known as the Downtown Watsonville Specific Plan, the 256-page document outlines a new land-use strategy to activate the area into the heart of culture and commerce in the city.

As with any land-use strategy, the plan creates an environment that makes it easier for the private market to raise new developments along downtown corridors, from residential and office to retail and restaurants. It also gives the government authority to craft public rights-of-way with enhanced bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The plan could allow for up to six-story buildings to enter the neighborhood.

Among the most significant changes is a planned reduction in traffic lanes on Main Street from four to two, with a third turning lane down the middle of the roadway.

“Once a thriving and bustling downtown, the Main Street has struggled to compete regionally with other commercial areas and has experienced high retail and commercial vacancy rates for the past several decades,” the plan reads. “… With Main Street as the commercial spine of downtown, there is also an opportunity to widen sidewalks, add bike lanes and introduce parklets that support a walkable community.

“The Main Street presents a key opportunity to become a strengthened commercial backbone of downtown with streetscape enhancements, ground floor activations, facade enhancements and travel lane reductions.”

Watsonville officials believe there are specific
Although development will happen at the pace of private market investment, Watsonville officials believe there are specific “opportunity sites” that are ripe for redevelopment. Here, they are highlighted in blue. Credit: Via City of Watsonville

That lane reduction will have to be led on by the state, as Main Street, which doubles as Highway 152, is owned by Caltrans, which has already shown a willingness to do the work according to city staff (a grant from the state agency helped fund the downtown plan process). Already congested with cars, multiple city council members said they worried about what reducing lanes might do to travel times, but that the benefit of a more walkable, welcoming roadway through the heart of the city’s core outweighed the possible pitfalls.

“Am I 100% satisfied with it? I’m not. Is it going to be a hot mess [on Main Street]? It is. But people will have to learn to take different routes,” Councilmember Jimmy Dutra said before casting a vote in favor. “We need to do something to revive downtown because pre-1989 we have a thriving downtown.”

Councilmember Kristal Salcido said the promise of a new downtown was “worth going out on a limb for” against the traffic concerns.

The plan talks about turning the neighborhood into an 18-hour downtown. While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are considered 24-hour cities because of the unending activity in those major cities, more midsized urban areas are considered 18-hour cities, where amenities and features keep the city happening from 6 a.m. to midnight. In an era when retail is falling to e-commerce, Watsonville envisions its downtown commercial center as a place with experiences that bring people to the area, such as restaurants, lounges and venues.

“I’m willing to take a chance … because I see the possibilities where right now, there are none,” Parker said. “I’m really into the experiences, escape rooms, wine tastings. All these different things that you have to be there for. That’s that experience downtown [used to be].”

Former mayor Lowell Hurst said the plan represented the kick downtown needs.

“It’s a sweet little downtown, but it needs a little polish,” Hurst told the city council. “Let’s make it a place that we don’t just drive through but to come to. That means there needs to be something here.”

City staff said redevelopment of downtown would occur at the rate dictated by the private market, but said there were several lots that are either vacant or underused that property owners have already shown interest in developing.

One of the more attractive features of the plan, according to staff, is that the city has already completed an environmental review for the variety of uses on downtown parcels, which will allow developers and property owners to skip over that thorny bureaucratic hurdle, and potentially saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars and six to 12 months of additional planning work and coordinating.

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Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...