WATSONVILLE—More than two dozen community members at Tuesday night’s Watsonville City Council meeting showed resounding support for the Pajaro Valley Arts Council’s planned rebuild of the historic Porter Building, a City of Watsonville-owned property at the gateway of downtown. And a competing proposal from WatsNews LLC, the owner of the Pajaronian, was met with the opposite—concerns of gentrification and disconnection from the community’s values.
The two local institutions are vying for control of the vacant two-story, 15,000-square-foot building, which has stood at the corner of Main Street and Maple Avenue since 1903.
PV Arts, a nonprofit established in 1984, hopes to create a haven for artists with gallery exhibits, art retail space and a multipurpose room for performances, meetings, events, workshops and additional special exhibits. The organization would also create several classrooms for seniors and young people and artists’ studios.
A company established by Santa Cruz Good Times owner and executive editor Dan Pulcrano in 2019 after he purchased the 152-year-old Pajaronian, WatsNews LLC is proposing a casual dining Italian restaurant from well-known restaurateur Joe Cirone, emphasizing locally-sourced ingredients, and a wine bar and food market highlighting Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards, Pajaro Valley farms and artisanal producers. The project also calls for a “boutique” micro-hotel and a “creative space” for community institutions as well as the Pajaronian.
Pulcrano said his plan will provide anywhere between 50-100 jobs, and he called it a “catalyst” for downtown.
“Watsonville has nowhere to go but up,” Pulcrano said. “If we do the downtown right…it’s going to be a powerhouse.”
But an overwhelming number of attendees said the plan “raised some red flags” about it leading to gentrification. They also had concerns about the language Pulcrano used during his presentation. Specifically, his use of words such as “strategic,” “catalyst” and “economic generator.”
“We need to be very careful about the types of businesses we allow into our town,” Xitlali Cabadas said. “We need to prioritize community places like PV Arts.”
Added Frances Salgado-Chavez: “I will not go to a restaurant that those people will bring. Those two are gentrifiers.”
The council was not required to take action Tuesday night. It is expected to make a decision on a possible sale or lease during the closed session of its Nov. 10 meeting.
The public is not allowed to attend the closed session portion of public meetings—public bodies hold these sessions to discuss private matters such as lawsuits and the purchase or lease of real property—but they can comment on agenda items before the session begins.
PV Arts Treasurer Judy Stabile said the nonprofit would use the building to expand its longstanding art shows, classes and retail opportunities currently found at its Sudden Street location. Stabile added that the Porter Building would be a “stepping stone” for a much larger project currently in its infancy: a massive community arts and performing center.
She said the move downtown would bring new foot traffic to its art galleries and events, and to surrounding restaurants and shops.
“We won’t be competing with other existing downtown businesses,” she said. “Our patrons will visit local restaurants and surrounding retailers. We will maximize the economic activity on Main Street.”
The council had several questions about how the nonprofit would afford to purchase the roughly $1.35 million building and renovate it in a timely manner.
Stabile said Aptos resident Leonard Groner has agreed to fund the purchase price. The additional funds needed to renovate the building—anywhere from $1-2 million, Stabile said—would have to come from grants and donations.
“It takes time to raise money,” she said.
For the other proposal, the council raised concerns about the viability of a restaurant given the state of the industry before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. They also had questions about its accessibility and affordability for low-income and Spanish-speaking residents and felt that it did not represent or celebrate the community.
“What about it celebrates Watsonville, its people, its history, its culture?” asked Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada. “If I wanted to go to one of these places I could easily go over the hill…How do you integrate it into the culture of Watsonville? I’m not seeing it at this point.”
Pulcrano and Cirone said that they would hire local—both people with and without cooking experience—and source the majority of their ingredients and products from Watsonville farmers and businesses.
“Everything about it is Watsonville,” Pulcrano said. “This will be, hopefully, part of the new Watsonville community…if you always look to the past, you never evolve. We’re looking at trends and what the future of the community is because people will demand amenities or they will leave because their tastes can be satisfied outside the area. This will help keep people in Watsonville. This will bring people to Watsonville.”
The City issued a request for proposals in November 2019. The council was set to review the proposals earlier this year, but the pandemic shelved those plans.
The original RFP said the City wanted proposals that would maximize the building’s potential by bringing an entertainment or retail-related business to the first floor.
The building was nearly sold in 2015 after Ceiba College Prep Academy moved out, but a deal with Walnut Creek’s Novin Development fell through.
It has sat empty since.
The building served as the post office until 1913 and has also served as a dentist office and an army surplus store.
It was one of the few historic buildings in Watsonville’s downtown that survived the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake with minimal damage.