Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Familiar Pattern with Local Twists

I returned yesterday from a brief trip to Watsonville, an agricultural community with century-and-a-half-old roots into the coastal plain south of Santa Cruz, less than three hours of driving time from the North Bay.  The principal reason for the travel was visiting with in-laws and exchanging Christmas gifts.

I’ve made other trips to Watsonville since my in-laws relocated there for their senior years and have found several opportunities to wander about, gathering perceptions of the community.  This most recent trip motivated me to organize and to share my thoughts.

Given that my primary focus in Watsonville is chatting with family, it’s possible that I’m mistaken on a point or two below.  But probably not many.  Having looked at a great many American cities gives me the ability to spot patterns, even during a short pass through.

There is much that I enjoy in Watsonville, from the terrazzo logo of a defunct shoe brand remembered from my youth to the creative reuse of aging railroad storage sheds.

But in its configuration Watsonville shows a pattern that can be seen across the country, a pattern that documents the post World War II transition from walkable urban to drivable suburban, a pattern that in its particulars is unique to Watsonville but in its general form can be seen nearly everywhere.

The aerial map tells the story.  In the southeast is the birthplace of the town, at the hub of radial streets leading toward the agricultural districts and farming villages.  Main Street in the southeast quadrant offered the initial commercial district and also functioned as Highway 1 for many years.  A patchwork of storage sheds and produce processing plants adjoined the railroad alignment a couple of long blocks to the south.  In between were dense neighborhoods of modest homes, within walkable distance of shops and places of employment.

Today, Main Street remains the walkable and historic center of the town, although with fewer pedestrians than desirable, buildings that remain handsome but underutilized, and such a dearth of imagination that when a parcel opened up for reuse in the downtown, the only idea was a bare expanse of grass that attracts few users.

As the town grew, more regimented neighborhoods began marching toward the north.  The homes were still largely modest, but were likely considered a step up from the housing near the railroad.  However, cars were now required because there were few shopping opportunities within walkable distances.

Next, the two coastal sloughs to the west were jumped.  In itself, leaping the sloughs was problem for walkability.  Because bridges were required, all movements had to pass over a limited number of crossing points, making travel distances longer and degrading walkability.  But even worse was the land-form on other side of sloughs with large areas of single-family homes and with destinations for work and shopping concentrated in pedestrian unfriendly shopping malls, big boxes, and industrial parks.

The final blow was the realignment of Highway 1 to the west, bypassing much of Watsonville and further undermining the already eroded economic underpinnings of Main Street.

The conversion from a walkable urban community to a drivable suburban community was complete.
My favorite, and most perverse, example of the transformation is a cemetery not from Main Street.  Traffic engineers decided that extra lanes were required on the adjoining street, pushing a retaining wall to within a few feet of several family mausoleums.  Consider the consequences.  To maneuver Grandma’s casket into the mausoleum, traffic must be stopped on the adjoining street to ensure that a passing semi doesn’t whack the end of the casket.  There is something wrong when we don’t find this fundamentally flawed.

There were efforts to remediate the losses.  A transit mall was constructed to provide connections between inter-city routes to Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Salinas and routes within Watsonville.  But use of the transit mall has been desultory, resulting in on-going efforts to “fix” it.

A multi-story transit-oriented development was wisely approved for a parcel near the transit mall, but the architecture, rather than enlivening the street, turned its back on the street and focused inward, deadening the walking routes from Main Street.

And a City Councilmember recently helped organize a community bike ride, an event that was reported to be successful, but likely generated only a portion of the community spirit that an active Main Street sidewalk with cafes and parklets might create.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Watsonville, much like nearly every California city, is facing a backlog of pension obligations and unfunded maintenance that would be forcing it into bankruptcy if it were a private company.

Can Watsonville be saved? 

Of course it can.  Without many more in-law visits and much more study, I won’t suggest particular concepts, but the standard urbanist tools of walkable development, stronger transit, neighborhood commercial, mixed-use, and bicycle routes would all have roles, as they do in most communities.  We can fix what ails Watsonville and many American cities, but we must begin thinking differently.  And Watsonville with its charming Main Street and its neighborhoods of cute homes is worth saving.

Outside of the details, there is nothing unique in Watsonville.  It has a story seen everywhere.  A story the trajectory of which we can and must change.

Next time, I’ll return to the topic of community separators in Sonoma County.  The proponents of the separators had a good day earlier this week, but some are trying to cast a false dichotomy over the issue which could impact the future of the separators.  I’ll explain in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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