Quick Take:

As Watsonville embarks on an ambitious long-term downtown makeover and Santa Cruz’s continues, both cities are aiming to boost housing density and make those areas more livable while also focusing on events and experiences at a time when e-commerce has made brick-and-mortar retail less of a downtown driver.

On seemingly parallel tracks, Santa Cruz County’s two largest cities are reenvisioning what role their downtowns need to play in the future success of their communities.

On Tuesday, Watsonville City Council capped off a nearly 10-year process with the unanimous approval of a downtown vision that will make room for thousands of new units, mixed-use residential buildings, entertainment centers, commercial space and a reshaping of Main Street from four-lane highway to a narrowed two-lane street.

Northwest along Highway 1, the city of Santa Cruz is also moving closer to finalizing its own ambitions for a downtown that expands south toward the beach, and includes 1,600 new housing units and 12-story mixed-use residential towers, anchored by the possibility of a new Santa Cruz Warriors arena. Over the past two months, the city has been surveying residents about their hopes for a new downtown neighborhood, and workshopping its vision with focus groups. City staff plans to present its vision, and the feedback it’s received, to the public in a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting during the first week of November.

What downtown means to smaller cities such as Watsonville and Santa Cruz is shifting, thanks to a convergence of political, cultural and economic sea changes.

The call on cities to grow and solve the housing crisis by adding more units has local governments eyeing downtowns as the place to fit the most units with minimum disruption to neighborhoods. The exorbitant cost of single-family homes has also led the younger set of housing market players to turn toward urban lifestyles.

And while downtowns have always been viewed as commercial centers, the sales tax base offered by a downtown long depended on retail shops; now, the convenience and ubiquity of e-commerce has dissolved the desire for a lot of brick-and-mortar retail, leading urban planners to see entertainment and “experiences” as the new attraction for future downtowns.

For Watsonville, this has been a long time coming, Mayor Eduardo Montesino told Lookout. During conversations about the future downtown, residents and city officials often spoke of the old one, before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake reduced the city’s commercial center to rubble. Conversations about how to get people to downtown again began “almost a decade ago,” he said. Montesino immediately pointed to how this new plan opens up the playing field for more housing.

Watsonville's Civic Plaza.
Watsonville’s Civic Plaza. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“The biggest thing we need is to have people living downtown,” Montesino said, highlighting the thousands of units that become possible under the plan’s new zoning. “Things start to really change when you have that kind of capacity. It brings restaurants and businesses and that helps entice even more people to come downtown.”

This harmonizes with what former Watsonville mayor Lowell Hurst said about the plan: “Let’s make [downtown] a place that we don’t just drive through but to come to.”

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley sees this hyperfocus on downtowns as more a symptom of the housing realities smaller cities such as Santa Cruz and Watsonville are having to address. For a long time, he said, smaller cities have worked to block growth. Now that the state has dissolved many of the cities’ power to say no, they are having to figure out how to grow.

“I’m not at all surprised that cities like Santa Cruz and Watsonville would say, generally speaking, to accommodate that state’s new requirements, the only way to protect neighborhoods from overdevelopment is to increase density, and downtown is a good place to do that,” Keeley said. However, he pointed to a market influence as well. “There is a huge market among people in their 20s to 40s for urban living. For a generation looking at $1.5 million for the cost of a house, people no longer reflexively think of living in a single-family house. It’s a cultural, economic and national phenomenon.”

However, downtown as a destination is driving Santa Cruz’s vision as well. City officials talk about the new downtown as an entertainment district, a place with nightlife and events as well as permanent residents. When I spoke to senior city planner Sarah Neuse last week, she said input from the different focus groups seem to naturally fall into a couple key themes.

“They want to know, what are these public spaces and how are they being used? Can there be lots of outdoor dining, and lots of nice landscaping? What would it take to get some nightlife for the city in this area?” Neuse said over Zoom.

This reflects a shift in economics of a thriving 21st-century downtown. Online shopping has altered the motivations for spending a day downtown. In envisioning a new downtown with mixed-use commercial and residential buildings, Watsonville City Manager Rene Mendez said retail space is no longer the priority. In a world where people can buy anything they want online and have it delivered to their doorstep, a bustling downtown is one that offers experiences: restaurants, lounges, venues and entertainment.

“I’m really into the experiences, escape rooms, wine tastings; all these different things that you have to be there for and you can’t just experience virtually,” Watsonville City Councilmember Ari Parker said. “That’s the experience downtown [used to be]. I’d like to see that vitality return.”

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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...