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A plan to bring back city's downtown

Posted: Thursday, Feb 14th, 2013




Few would argue that downtown Watsonville is a model for what a downtown should be.  Sure, we have beautiful buildings and some of the finest historic architecture in the world.  And we have great pocket parks, free parking and beautiful murals.  But downtown still isn't the thriving commercial district it once was, nor does it offer a lot for a broad range of residents and visitors in terms of shopping, dining or work opportunities.  

In this difficult economic time, when cities everywhere are struggling to find just the right way to succeed economically, it would be easy to just let downtown Watsonville be what it is and not expect more.  Well, starting about a year ago, the city of Watsonville decided to go another direction and lay the foundations for a better downtown.

One source of downtown's struggles has been that Highway 152 is routed through the center of our town.  While this highway brings many cars to downtown every day, most are just passing through.  Additionally, because Caltrans focuses on traffic throughput, the roadway is designed to be friendly to cars that are passing through town and not friendly to cars trying to park or to pedestrians walking from store to store.

The highway also means that the city does not have control of the street or sidewalks in downtown.  This means that we must apply for permits with the state when we need to work on the sidewalk, street or any of the underground infrastructure.  None of this makes it easy to improve the downtown district.

So what can we do about it?  For starters, the city recently started the process to discuss with Caltrans the possibility of relinquishing Highway 152. Instead of going through downtown as is the case now, the highway would start at the edge of the city. This would allow Watsonville to start making those physical changes to the street that will start changing the way the downtown economy functions.

 For starters, this change would allow the city to set up areas where the sidewalks are wide enough to encourage outdoor dining areas — and attract a more diverse community of restaurants. It would also allow us to increase the number of parking spaces. Having control of this asset will make it much easier for Watsonville to determine our own destiny in terms of how downtown operates. The city is conducting a maintenance study with Caltrans to determine the cost of maintaining Highway 152 within the city limits if Caltrans were to relinquish the highway. The city is also conducting a traffic study to determine the impacts if the city were to make major changes to Main Street such as reducing the number of lanes from four lanes to two within the downtown core.

We probably won't be able to make massive immediate changes to the downtown due to fiscal constraints, but we can get this project started with early steps.  First, the city of Watsonville will be starting an effort to get public participation in this project.  We want the community to help determine the direction of downtown.  Secondly, we need help from the business community to make this happen.  We need developers to invest, property owners to improve their properties, businesses to make an inviting environment and most of all we need a group of people willing to be cheerleaders and advocates for this fantastic downtown.

Are you with us?  Please contact me at 768-3087 and let us know you want to help.

•••

Kurt Overmeyer is the economic development manager for Watsonville.

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