WATSONVILLE — An ambitious plan to rework the structure of Watsonville’s downtown received overwhelming support from the City Council at Tuesday night’s meeting.
The City Council voted 5-2 directing city staff to prepare a final Complete Streets Plan, which, if passed at a future meeting, would make drastic changes to Watsonville’s core downtown.
Chief among those changes: slimming the oft-congested Main Street from four lanes to two starting at its 1st Street intersection to its connection with Freedom Boulevard.
That change was one of the few drawbacks in the preferred plan for councilwomen Trina Coffman-Gomez and Ari Parker, who both voted no.
Along with a “road diet” of Main Street, the city’s preferred plan would add buffered bike lanes, wider sidewalks, high visibility crosswalks and extended curbs at nearly every intersection in downtown.
The possible positive impact on business as a result of the proposed changes in downtown was lauded by members of the public, but Mayor Francisco Estrada reiterated that the Complete Streets Plan was a response to the city’s ongoing fight to make its streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
Watsonville was ranked first in the number of pedestrians injured or killed among similar-sized cities in the state, according to a 2016 study by the California Office of Traffic Safety. Early last year the council adopted Vision Zero, an initiative first implemented in Sweden in the ‘90s which acknowledges that traffic fatalities are preventable, and aims to come up with solutions to achieve a zero death goal by 2030.
San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities have also adopted Vision Zero. Watsonville is the only city in Santa Cruz County to do so.
The “status quo,” Estrada said, is not working, as just nine days before the council sat down for Tuesday’s meeting a 75-year-old man, Baudelio Perez Pulido, was struck and killed in the intersection of Rodriguez and Beach streets.
“To me, we failed him,” Estrada said. “As a community, we failed him and we have failed every single person that has passed away because of an accident.”
In 2017, the City Council adopted a resolution accepting a $255,583 Sustainable Communities Grant from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The grant allowed the City to develop a Complete Streets Plan in the downtown area with help from the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and Caltrans.
The City’s preferred plan was based on input from members of the community gathered at multiple Watsonville events like the Strawberry Festival, Watsonville Farmer’s Market, Lunch in the Plaza and the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce Business Expo.
City staff said they also met with multiple business owners and partners, and conducted an online survey.
Coffman-Gomez and Parker were both skeptical of how thorough the city was with its surveys and its transparency with downtown businesses.
Coffman-Gomez argued that more than a handful of businesses in downtown had not been consulted about the Complete Streets Plan, flashing several business cards she said she picked up at Saturday’s Wine, Beer and Art Walk.
“These are businesses that didn’t even know about the survey, that are on Main Street, that are concerned that they feel like they are the last to know what’s going on in downtown,” Coffman-Gomez said. “This is a disappointment…I think that we’ve had a selection of those that we’ve surveyed that I don’t think is a true cross section of our community.”
Sal Orozco, the owner of Foreverfly Skate in downtown, said he was aware of the meeting, but was unable to show up to the council chambers Tuesday night.
Orozco said he had some reservations about the idea of a “road diet,” but supports any changes that make Main Street safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
His store sits a few feet from the crosswalk spilling out of Taylor’s Alley on the 400 block of Main Street, and he said it is not unusual to see a person have to wait a few minutes for speeding cars to finally stop and allow them to cross.
“People go too fast on Main Street,” Orozco said. “I don’t mind the traffic…I just want something that will make the streets safer.”
That was the overwhelming feeling from community members on Tuesday night.
Darren Gertler, a coordinator at the Environmental Science Workshop on 2nd Street, said that roughly 10,000 students a year walk through the streets of downtown Watsonville to work and play at the community center.
“I realize it’s hard to make big decisions, there’s consequences on all levels, but I think that anything that we can do to make it safer for our students that walk on these streets…I highly endorse,” Gertler said.
Gina Cole, a senior policy analyst at Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, concurred with Gertler and several other speakers, saying that the wholesale changes to the city’s downtown were worth the possible public backlash.
“You’re not going to make everyone happy with your decision,” Cole said. “People are going to be upset no matter what you choose. If you’re erring on the side of the environment, if you’re erring on the side of safety, if you’re erring on the side of increasing a pleasant experience in downtown, this is the way to go.”
The majority of Tuesday’s backlash came from former City Council members Jimmy Dutra and Nancy Bilicich, whom both argued that the preferred plan was a wish list and did not address where the spillover traffic from a slimmed Main Street would be diverted. Sending the automobile traffic to Rodriguez and Brennan streets where Radcliff Elementary School and Moreland Notre Dame School, respectively, lie would create a new danger, Bilicich said.
“You can’t divert the cars there, you’ll have kids running out in the street,” Bilicich said. “Where are the cars going to go? Until we have a plan of where the cars are going to go, I would encourage you to think about this and not make changes for change sake.”
Both Dutra and Bilicich also said additional road signs and enforcement was the route the council should take to improve pedestrian safety in downtown.
Councilman Felipe Hernandez, however, disputed this, saying that multiple studies on “road diets” have proven they are a boon to both business and safety. Increased enforcement and additional signage only do so much, Hernandez said.
“We’ve done the enforcement, we’ve increased it, yet the problem continues. What’s going to get us out of this is taking bold steps to changing this, to changing the environment that we have in downtown,” Hernandez said. “It’s good for business too, but it’s really about the people that have passed away. It’s about making changes for our local residents.”
The Complete Streets Plan is currently in its final phase, and city staff said it would continue its community outreach over the next few months before its completion in the fall.
When completed, the plan will return to the City Council for approval.
Any lane reduction would require a traffic study, which city staff said could happen in the winter of 2020. And an approval of the final plan from Caltrans would come sometime in 2021, city staff said.
Caltrans is part of the project team as Main Street, East Lake Avenue and East Beach Street are part of state route 152.
The proposed changes fall in line with the City’s planned downtown revitalization, which includes wholesale changes to its strict alcohol ordinance that has stood for the last 17 years.
City Council at an upcoming meeting is expected to mull over the Planning Commission’s recent recommendation to allow 15 percent of all business in downtown and 30 percent of all business in shopping centers be alcohol related.
For information on the Complete Streets Plan visit cityofwatsonville.org/1620/Downtown-Complete-Streets-Plan.