.Watsonville Moves Forward with Caltrans on Downtown Project

The city to investigate the comprehensive renovation of its downtown corridor

Breaking from the usual modus operandi of allowing her colleagues to ask their questions and voice their concerns first, Watsonville Mayor Ari Parker started the city council’s questioning of a $25 million reimaging of downtown Watsonville’s street landscape. The people she’s talked to, the 7th District representative said, are “very worried” about the impact the proposed reduction of lanes on Main Street from Freedom Boulevard to Riverside Drive could have on Brennan Street, where several homes, businesses and a school have entrances and exits.

“I think that [city staff] has heard that over the past decade,” Parker said.

A few moments later, Parker said she also heard complaints from people in her district, including the older adult communities on the city’s east side. They don’t feel safe parking or shopping downtown on Main Street; cars and semi-trucks sometimes zip by above 40 miles per hour.

“I have tried and succeeded in parking on Main Street. I took my life in my hands when I got out of my car on Main Street, and it scared the heck out of me,” she said. “I know that our senior community is not going to do that—not that way it is.”

At its Tuesday meeting, the city council voted unanimously to support a resolution that signified to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) that the city is willing to investigate the comprehensive renovation of the downtown corridor. Those plans include the aforementioned “road diet” and the addition of separated bike lanes, parklets for outdoor dining and widened sidewalks. Changing the traffic patterns on Beach Street and Lake Avenue from one-way to two-way roads is also included in the list of alterations.

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Watsonville has been unable to change its downtown because of decades of inaction from Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over the street because it is part of a roughly seven-mile Highway 152 thoroughfare. Previous council members’ hesitancy to explore the reduction of lanes has also hampered the project’s momentum. But with the state now emphasizing shifting roadways across California from car-first thoroughfares to pedestrian-friendly avenues, the city has the support of Caltrans and the funds to implement its plans, too.

“This will involve a partnership with, certainly, the property owners and the tenants, and thank goodness, Caltrans is going to be our partner,” Councilman Lowell Hurst said. “I think this is a landmark piece of commitment on our part. They’ll be flexible; I hope when we meet difficulties and adjustments that need to be made. I hope Caltrans will be a good partner in that.”

There is a 10-year timeline for the project, city staff says. Caltrans will have a litany of tasks it must accomplish before it can break ground. This includes a yearlong public outreach period, preparing environmental documents and creating detailed designs. According to Watsonville Principal Engineer Murray Fontes, construction is planned for 2031, though that timeline could speed up.

The project’s scope could change during that process. Caltrans is expected to conduct a traffic study along with its environmental impact reports before moving forward.

Staff says Caltrans is basing its renovations on concepts included in four plans developed by the city over the past five years: the Downtown Complete Streets Plan, Vision Zero, the 2030 Climate Action & Adaptation Plan and the Downtown Watsonville Specific Plan. 

A key element of those plans is encouraging changes to roadways to make them more accessible for bikes and pedestrians. Staff said the shift is integral for the Santa Cruz County city; between 2013-2019, Watsonville has consistently ranked among the fifth highest in the number of pedestrian collisions for cities with a population of 50,001 to 100,000.

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