Meet the players behind the multi-faceted push to reshape Watsonville’s downtown
Like a giant rousing itself from a deep slumber, downtown Watsonville has come alive with the sound of jackhammers and earth-movers.
The old commercial center and heart of the town is undergoing radical change—old buildings coming down, new ones going up—while a city plan to make a section of Main Street more walkable with expanded sidewalks and reduced traffic aims to provide new direction for a district that has foundered under the weight of the recession and the loss of redevelopment funds.
But the new construction, including the controversial addition of a McDonald’s at the end of Main Street near Riverside Drive, is just part of the story.
While Watsonville is still feeling the effects of the economic downturn—Furlough Fridays are still in effect at city hall, and the city council recently cut funding to some social programs—the gloom of recent years has also managed to spark a spirit of collaboration and community engagement that has given rise to new projects like the Watsonville Film Festival, the Digital Nest and a community-wide mural project that is literally reimagining the city, block by block.
In addition, special events like the city’s first-ever Open Streets in May, community dog walking and bike rides, and a food truck gathering in the city’s downtown that brought more than 400 people to the area, has demonstrated that residents are hungry for revitalization, and will come out to support it.
City Councilmember Felipe Hernandez (of no relation to the author), who represents a section of the downtown district and organized the community bike rides, dog walking and food truck events, says that he wanted to help create a sense of community at a time when many people work long hours and may not have the opportunity to engage with their neighbors.
“I always thought other people should do these events or the city should do them,” he says. “But the city is strapped and [the events] are free, so why not do them myself?”
“I like the idea of the demonstration project and having longer conversations on getting local control of Highway 152,” says City Councilmember Karina Cervantez Alejo, whose district contains a section of downtown that runs from the city plaza to the Pajaro River, about the city’s plan.
As it is one of the higher-density districts of the city, with multi-family homes and apartment complexes, Cervantez Alejo supports the idea of making a section of Main Street in her district more pedestrian-friendly.
“A more walkable downtown would be a boon to our community, having more places for people to gather and sit,” says Cervantez Alejo. “We also have a lot of public safety issues because it is an area with a lot of traffic, and there have been many unfortunate accidents with pedestrians.”
The plan, which has been in development for two years, would be undertaken in phases, with the first phase impacting a section of Main Street, from Beach Street to First Street.
On July 1, the city held a public meeting to show the community the latest artist renderings of the streetscape improvements. The designs showed a section of downtown transformed with expanded sidewalks, benches for people to sit on, colorful crosswalks that also serve a dual purpose of slowing traffic down, and drought-tolerant plants in purpose-built planters to add a bit of greenery to Main Street. The plan also calls for a major reconfiguration of traffic, cutting down the thoroughfare from four lanes to two.
The city estimates the costs for this initial phase at just over $500,000, for which they have allocated funds. The subsequent phases of the project would require additional funding. Economic Development Director Keith Boyle told the filled room—many of whom had attended similar meetings over the last couple of years—that the implementation of the first phase would help the city in securing additional grants for the remainder of the project.
“Many communities are doing what we are proposing now, and those that have done it are very successful,” says Boyle.
Dana Henderson of Union West Builders drew comparisons to cities like Morgan Hill, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Campbell, Cupertino and Los Gatos that have all implemented similar street modifications.
For nearly two years, Watsonville city staff has been discussing with CalTrans the possible relinquishment of the section of Highway 152 that runs along the city’s Main Street. The city has long argued that the highway has impeded development of the downtown corridor and created a fast-moving thoroughfare that is unsafe for pedestrians and serves to direct people away from downtown rather than to it.
At the meeting, interim city manager Marcela Tavantzis asked the crowd if they wanted to still move forward with the first phase of the Main Street modifications if the Highway 152 relinquishment never happens—and if, after weighing all the costs, it would not be feasible for the city to obtain local control, and the plan, with its colorful sidewalks and outdoor seating, would be limited to just the part of Main Street where the city has jurisdiction.
Before she could even finish her question, the crowd answered with an emphatic “Yes!”
The plan is not without its critics, however. Concern over the traffic component of the proposal prompted a divided City Council to approve only a three-month trial period of the reconfiguration on July 7.
“There are so many people willing to work to create something different,” says Kimberly Lacrosse, community organizer for United Way Santa Cruz County and program director of Jovenes SANOS, a youth advocacy group that focuses on health and nutrition.
She is sitting at Second Street Café in downtown Watsonville before the June 2 Planning Commission meeting, where the owner of 85 Taco Bells, including the existing one in Watsonville and the downtown Santa Cruz location, will be applying for a special-use permit to construct a 1,629-square-foot drive-thru restaurant on a vacant lot on Watsonville’s Main Street.
The city council’s controversial decision in October to remove the drive-thru restrictions in the city’s zoning code to allow the owner of two McDonald’s in Watsonville to erect a third on lower Main Street got the attention of successful Taco Bell franchise owner Monica Schneider of Golden Gate Bell, who, along with developer S.G. Ellison of First Street Development, came to make their pitch.
That evening’s presentation to the seven-body board included design plans and results from a traffic study—which did not factor in the proposal to cut that stretch of Main Street from four lanes to two—that stated the new restaurant would have no impact to existing traffic, as well as economic benefits estimated at $100,000 in tax revenue for the city per year. A significant portion of the presentation was devoted to explaining the nutritional value of Taco Bell food. The applicant’s powerpoint presentation namechecked the local youth advocacy program Jovenes SANOS and the city’s 2010 Healthy Eating Options Ordinance, which requires new businesses to provide a certain number of healthy eating options in order to obtain a building permit.
According to the ordinance’s system, in which new businesses receive points for each healthy option on their menu, Taco Bell surpassed the minimum number of points needed to gain a building permit.
When it came time for public comments, however, Megan Joseph, director of community organizing for United Way Santa Cruz County, which runs the Jovenes SANOS program, lamented that the ordinance, introduced as a way to “reduce health issues related to unhealthy eating habits such as diabetes, heart disease and being overweight,” was being used by fast-food retailers, including the McDonald’s currently under construction.
“Now that we see that [the ordinance] is being implemented in the way it is being implemented, we are disappointed in its outcome. It’s not what we intended,” Joseph says. “Taco Bell meeting its requirements is not a victory for the health of fast food. It’s a symptom of it not operating in the way we or our youth in Watsonville intended.”
More than 20 spoke against the Taco Bell proposal, with one providing the commission with a copy of an online petition filled with signatures and comments in opposition to the proposed downtown Taco Bell restaurant.
Afterward, the commissioners voted unanimously to reject Taco Bell’s proposal for the 222 Main Street. Taco Bell will appeal the decision to the City Council in September.
Citing the project’s incompatibility with the city’s proposal to make that segment of Main Street more pedestrian-friendly and a demonstration of what the rest of downtown could be like, commissioner Nick Rivera concluded, “We are at a crossroads right now. Downtown can finally be a downtown worth going to again.”
At the conference room table of his Watsonville offices sits Bill Hansen of Pacific Coast Development. The former United States Coast Guard Navigator came to Watsonville in 1981 and owns a number of properties throughout the city, including the downtown Gottschalk’s building, and the recently demolished single-story building at 437 Main St., which housed the Chopsticks Restaurant—a Watsonville institution for decades before it closed in 2012.
The demolition makes way for a new mixed-use commercial/residential property, with shops on the ground floor and 54 units of market-rate studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments on three floors above.
Called The Terrace, the property will extend over into an empty lot, also owned by Hansen, and have a number of desirable features, including an enclosed courtyard and barbecue area, swimming pool and hot tub, and outdoor fireplace. Hansen expects the project to be completed by summer of next year.
Around the corner from where The Terrace will be, the city’s second AutoZone is currently under construction at 17 West Lake Ave., next to the Resetar Residential Hotel, once the grandest on Main Street.
The two-story, nearly 9,000 square-foot auto parts store is being constructed on 24 parking spaces owned by Hansen.
“This will be the first two-story AutoZone in the country,” Hansen says. “They [AutoZone] are extremely excited about this, as it will enable them to put some of their stores in an urban environment, where space is limited. So they will be able to build the two-story prototype that is being designed here.”
GT asked Hansen if there was any movement at the vacant Gottschalk’s building. The nearly 80,000-square-foot building at the corner of Main and Beach streets has been empty since the retailer went bust in 2009. The loss of downtown’s “anchor store” means less foot traffic to the downtown district, impacting the overall atmosphere of the downtown and the neighboring businesses that relied on the draw of the department store.
“It’s a unique situation,” says Hansen, who purchased the property in 1995. The original owner of the building, the Charles Ford Company, filed for bankruptcy in 1992 after doing business in Watsonville for over 140 years. “It’s a large space, and we don’t want to pull the trigger on the wrong sort of tenant. We want the community to benefit from a real retailer.”
A challenge to that aim, he adds, is that a lot of the retailers that can occupy a space that large aren’t really interested in a downtown environment. “But,” he says, “it is changing.”
In the last two years, as the economy has started to improve, he says, commercial or industrial properties that had once sat empty are being filled.
Indeed, Watsonville officials recently announced that FedEx would be relocating their sort terminal to Manawbe-Ow, an undeveloped industrial site on the city’s west side near Highway 1. At almost 200,000 square feet, the project would be large enough to absorb the infrastructure costs necessary to get the rest of the industrial park online and available for a further 500,000 square feet of development, says the city’s economic development manager Kurt Overmeyer.
Hansen says the lack of commercial space is prompting retailers to look again at the downtown core, and he is optimistic about the fate of the Gottschalk’s building.
“We are holding out. We don’t want to put in a substandard retailer and have them for one year, two years, three years, or five years. We want to put somebody in there that will serve the community for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” Hansen says.
In the meantime, he agrees with the idea of the downtown plan but also wants other downtown property owners and merchants to “step it up a notch or two.”
“We maintain all of our properties,” Hansen says. “If we see graffiti, it is gone immediately. We have maintenance personnel on staff. We are on it all the time. I want to make sure that people are maintaining their buildings. So when there is a potential business, tenant or property buyer coming in to town, it is appealing and looks nice.”
While downtown property owners are responsible for maintaining their own buildings, the Watsonville Police Department recently organized the city’s first community-wide graffiti removal effort, which again brought in dozens of volunteers to remove tagging at parks and buildings along the Walker Street railroad tracks. The city aims to implement a scheme where groups “adopt” a segment of the city to help keep graffiti down.
The next item, Hansen says, is to fill any existing vacancies in the downtown corridor with quality tenants, so there are a variety of stores and options for residents—a sentiment repeatedly expressed by community members. Two years ago, Civinomics surveyed residents and those who work downtown about what they want to see in the district. More entertainment options and restaurants topped the list.
To that end, the city is reviewing the possibility of establishing an Entertainment District to help fund and support more entertainment venues in the downtown, and also change the way in which the city grants alcohol licenses, which is very stringent and limits the types of restaurants or tasting rooms that may want to set up shop in the district.
A new crop of organizations are making a difference, too. Providing free access to digital tools and technology skills to young adults from 12 to 24 years of age, the Digital Nest will be moving from its current location off Green Valley Road to downtown Watsonville in the coming months.
“We see the Digital Nest as a central and accessible spot for people to gather, and downtown should be that,” says Digital Nest executive director Jacob Martinez. With 370 young people from Watsonville and outside the area, including Santa Cruz, Salinas and Mountain View counted as card-carrying Digital Nest members, Martinez is excited about the move and what it means for downtown Watsonville.
“They are already coming to Watsonville to access top-of-the-line technology,” he says. “Now they will be coming downtown.”
The success of the Watsonville Film Festival has also brought attention to downtown.
“I am finding that the way to make change in Watsonville is by bringing people together to work on specific projects around art, culture, fitness and education,” says WFF Director Consuelo Alba. “When people get involved, they get inspired, and naturally want to see improvements that end up impacting the political results.”
But Hansen says none of these attempts to revitalize Watsonville can succeed unless residents and visitors take it upon themselves to discover what makes the downtown worth saving in the first place.
“People need to come down and experience what downtown is like, as opposed to viewing and judging from afar,” says Hansen. “It’s a jewel, with the plaza and a lot of the historical features of the buildings. And slowly but surely we will have more eating establishments and new retailers.”
Cover image: Santa Cruz artist Kirby Scudder’s artistic rendering of Watsonville.