WATSONVILLE—Watsonville Prep School has found a home in downtown Watsonville.
The Watsonville Planning Commission on Tuesday approved plans to remodel a portion of the long-vacant Gottschalks Building on Main Street into a 41,000-square-foot school.
Navigator Schools, the parent organization of the charter school, and the Hansen Family Trust are teaming up on the project. Navigator Schools CEO Kevin Sved and property owners Bill and Neva Hansen tabbed the renovation of the 75,000-square-foot building at 407 Main St. as a positive step for Watsonville’s sleepy downtown corridor.
But some of the commissioners were hesitant to approve the project as is, citing concerns about parking, traffic, safety and limited physical education opportunities for the eventual 565 students that will attend the TK-8 school.
It was approved 4-3 with commissioners Ed Acosta, Jenny Sarmiento and Veronica Dorantes-Pulido dissenting. Commissioners Anna Kammer and Jenni Veitch-Olson said they had to “reluctantly” approve the project despite their concerns because it met all of the needed requirements written in the City code.
The rebuild will include 19 classrooms, a library, a multipurpose room that would serve as a cafeteria and physical education space, a play space and various administrative offices. All but the 4,000-square-foot play space will be built on the second level of the building. The entrance to the school will be at the back of the building in Stoesser Alley.
Sved said he hopes construction will start this winter, and be completed by August 2021.
The remaining space on the first floor will remain open for commercial development.
The building has sat vacant since 2009 after Gottschalks filed for bankruptcy and the Watsonville location closed. Bill Hansen said he has plans of filling the remaining vacant space with “boutique” shops and dining options that “match the overall vision of downtown” currently being molded in the City’s Downtown Specific Plan efforts.
Only three community members spoke during public comment.
Sharon Waller, a Watsonville native and co-founder of Navigator Schools, and Crystal Toriumi, also a Watsonville native and Principal of Gilroy Prep School, Watsonville Prep’s sister school, recommended the commission approve the project.
Brando Sencion, the owner of the Slice Project pizza shop at the corner of Main Street and Maple Avenue, asked the commissioners to consider the impact the school will have on already “wild” traffic when it is at capacity. The current traffic, he said, already deters shoppers from visiting downtown businesses, and creates an unsafe environment for pedestrians.
“It’s going to be pretty hectic,” he said.
Many of the commissioners had similar concerns and picked apart the school’s traffic management plan, which stated that it would not have a significant impact on the area’s traffic. It also laid out the school’s pick-up and drop-off routes in the parking lot shared with CVS Pharmacy, Ace Hardware and AutoZone, and included a list of improvements—such as high-visibility crosswalks—at the intersections surrounding the school.
The traffic management plan will require yearly review.
Sved also said the school would hire a full-time security guard to patrol the entrance of the building.
Commissioner Kammer proposed an amendment to the approval that Watsonville Prep be capped at 445 students—removing the seventh and eighth grade—to lower the number of vehicles picking up and dropping off students. That amendment, which also included a requirement of outdoor physical education in the school’s curriculum, failed 5-2.
Acosta was critical of the project and called it “an accident waiting to happen,” citing the City’s more than 400 recorded collisions in the corridor over the last three years. He motioned to deny the project, but that motion failed 4-3.
“This is about the safety of our kids,” he said. “If something happens, we’re responsible for it.”
But Sved and Hansen said many of the traffic and pedestrian safety concerns will be addressed by the City’s Downtown Complete Streets Plan. Approved by the Watsonville City Council last year, the plan proposes $27 million worth of changes to the corridor’s structure. Those changes include a possible reduction of lanes on Main Street—an alteration that is dependent on a traffic study, and subsequent approval from Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over the City’s main artery.
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.
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.