The 4.6-mile L-shaped leg of Highway 152 that cuts through Watsonville may become a city street, but it will be a long road to get to that point.
The Watsonville City Council took the first step in that direction Tuesday when all seven city councilors approved beginning the process to have the state relinquish control of the thoroughfare.
The hope is city ownership of the road can offer the freedom to revitalize downtown through beautification programs, changes to traffic flow and pedestrian access—even sidewalk widening so restaurants can open outdoor seating areas.
“The biggest thing is, I think this could help us activate our downtown," said Kurt Overmeyer, city economic development manager.
Less than a mile of Highway 152 is within the downtown corridor, but the city will ask the state for the entire stretch of highway that falls within Watsonville. That will mean the city is responsible for maintenance and liability but also gets the property rights.
The city council needed to make a resolution and write a letter of intent, then introduce legislation to the California Transportation Commission. The commission takes up requests for relinquishing in September, so the issue won't actually be decided until next fall.
Still, city leaders were excited about the possibilities.
Overmeyer said the city can make downtown more cohesive, improve pedestrian safety, provide more parking spots and “it could help make Watsonville more of a destination center.”
The downtown has struggled to attract both businesses and patrons for years. City Councilman Oscar Rios said the area fell on hard times after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and never recovered.
“I think the idea you’re proposing is just wonderful," Rios said.
Control of the highway—which starts at Highway 1 as Main Street and turns into East Lake Avenue when it turns left at the City Plaza—could make a more cohesive downtown, according to Overmeyer.
“We need a shared vision," he said. "... I think that vision needs to be something we can all grab hold of, all believe in.”
City staff is already looking for grants to help fund the planning process, which will incorporate economics, planning and zoning rules, how this space interacts with the people who live downtown, parking and how all modes of traffic circulate and—of course—what types of businesses are best for downtown.
Some expressed doubts in the plan. Watsonville resident Alfredo Gonzalez said he was worried about the city maintaining the road.
“What are we going to do with it? How are we going to maintain it? We can't even maintain what we got now," he said.
But overall the prospect of gaining control of the road was cause for excitement Tuesday. City councilors said they hoped the improvements would attract new business and draw in visitors from wealthier areas in the region to enjoy Watsonville's historic downtown.
“We have to make it 'Destination Watsonville,'" City Councilman Emilio Martinez said. “There’s more to Watsonville than just having strawberries.”