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October 26, 2020

Gottschalks building renovation going to Planning Commission

WATSONVILLE—A proposed redevelopment of the vacant Gottschalks building in the heart of downtown will come to the Watsonville Planning Commission during its Oct. 6 meeting.

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Navigator Schools, the parent organization of local charter school Watsonville Prep, and the Hansen Family Trust are teaming up to redesign the building at 407 Main St. The plans call for a portion of the two-story 75,000-square-foot building to be converted into a two-story 41,000-square-foot facility that would house the upstart K-8 charter school.

Navigator Schools CEO Kevin Sved said the rebuild would include 19 classrooms, a library, a multipurpose room that would serve as a cafeteria and physical education space, a playspace and various administrative offices. All but the 4,000-square-foot playspace will be built on the second level of the building. The remaining space on the first floor will remain open for commercial development.

“We’re super excited about making downtown Watsonville our future home,” Sved said. “We’re mission-driven to provide high-quality education opportunities for our target audience, the children growing up in Watsonville. We know that economic development is part of what makes a community strong, and we really hope to contribute to that.”

The project was first announced in December of last year in a joint press release from Navigator Schools and the Hansen Family Trust, controlled by property owners Bill and Neva Hansen. The new facility will allow the school to add one grade each year until it has an eighth grade and serves 565 students, Sved said.

The announcement drew a mixed response from the community. Many were happy to see the building, which has sat vacant since 2009 after Gottschalks filed for bankruptcy and the Watsonville location closed, be brought back to life. But some were concerned for the safety of the children walking through the high-traffic area that also struggles with homelessness. Others worried the school would compound the corridor’s well-known traffic troubles.

Sved said he has heard those concerns and that he worked with the City’s Community Development Department and a traffic consultant to develop a traffic management plan that he says will make sure the school has a “minimal” impact on the area’s traffic.

The plan, according to planning documents, will provide a designated pick-up and drop-off route and zone at the back of the building in the large parking lot shared with CVS Pharmacy, Ace Hardware and AutoZone. The school will also provide some long-term bike parking spaces and short-term vehicle parking spaces, as well as 40 additional parking spaces for staff.

The school also plans to add high-visibility yellow paint and other safety features at the four intersections surrounding the facility.

The traffic mitigation plan will require a yearly review from City staff, according to Watsonville Associate Planner Ivan Carmona.

Because of that traffic mitigation plan, the City provided a Categorical Exemption for the project, meaning that it will not need to undergo a California Environmental Quality Act review because the staff has determined the project will not have a “significant effect” on the environment.

Watsonville Prep joined the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in 2019 after a yearlong battle at the local, county and state levels. It currently occupies six portable classrooms and an office on the E.A. Hall Middle School campus, and three classrooms and one office at Ann Soldo Elementary School. Under a state law known as Proposition 39, PVUSD must provide space for the charter school, the district’s financial state notwithstanding.

The cash-strapped district spent about $500,000 preparing the units at E.A. Hall, and another $162,000 to ready the rooms at Ann Soldo, according to PVUSD spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez.

Sved said Navigator Schools has set a tentative project completion date of August 2021.

The Hansens and their company Pacific Coast Development have been at the forefront of the recent revitalization of Main Street. They also own The Terrace apartment building at 445 Main St. The four-story development includes 54 apartments and a Togo’s sandwich shop below.

They also own the property at 558 Main St., where they plan to build a 50-unit apartment building called The Residence and about 3,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor.

If denied by the Planning Commission, Sved and Navigator Schools could appeal to the Watsonville City Council.

Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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