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The Changing Face of Downtown SLO

Things have been pretty quiet in downtown San Luis Obispo of late. Sure, the shoppers still bustle, the trolley continues to clang, and the barhoppers carouse until closing time. But since the Downtown Centre opened for business, shifting the economic balance of the city southward, there’s been little change in the face of the beloved county seat.

But soon the look, for better or worse, will be getting a facelift as a variety of building projects take root. New buildings are in the planning stages throughout the downtown area, and one plan could create an entirely new city center.

We decided to take a look at some of the larger projects on the city’s horizon.

A New City Center, Courtesy of the Copelands?


The most intriguing, and least firmed-up, project on the horizon is a proposal by the Copeland family to reshape three city blocks in the heart of downtown.

Dubbed by some Downtown Centre 2, since the Copelands built that popular mall, this plan is much more aggressive. It would redevelop most of the area south of the current City Hall and bounded on the north by Palm Street between the SLO City-County Library and the Palm Theatre and on the south by Monterey Street, but it also would include the Court Street parking lot.

Much of the land in the area is already owned by the Copelands, but a considerable chunk is currently used for city parking. Under the proposal, an underground lot would be built that would exceed the number of spaces that would be turned into shopping areas. The plan also calls for the closing the section of Morro Street between Palm and Monterey.

As currently envisioned, the project would address some of the downtown’s most controversial and intractable issues:

Parking. The city just agreed to expand the Marsh Street garage, but there are more garages in the city’s plan. While the Copelands’ plan removes the Court Street lot and the open lot between Palm and Monterey streets, it includes a large underground garage. This option for the so-called Palm 2 garage has advantages over the above-ground facility being considered by the city, but at 400-some-odd spaces it may not be big enough to offset the loss of the open lot spaces and the need for new parking.

City Hall. The city has been looking for a new City Hall to consolidate its offices in one spot. Under the proposal now under consideration, the Copelands would build the City Hall, saving the city the trouble and difficulty of getting the voters to pass a bond election. The building would be in exchange for land that the Copelands would receive.

Court Street. In the two decades since the Obispo Theatre burned down, Court Street between Marsh and Higuera has been the focal point of many failed development plans. Now an open parking lot in the heart of town, the land has been eyed by many a developer and equally coveted by park enthusiasts who revere the way the lot opens up views of the downtown. It may now be the make-or-break part of the Copelands’ plan.

Interviews with city councilmembers and planners show that the plan to put shopping on Court Street could kill the otherwise highly thought-of development. City Councilman John Ewan puts the Court Street question into perspective: "The key property is the Court Street parking lot. You won’t find a single vacant piece of land [in downtown], so where else are we supposed to provide new retail shopping areas?"

The plan is in the embryonic stages, but has some early interest among city leaders. Mayor Allen Settle said that he's "eager" for the proposal to come forward, and it apparently will get an initial review Sept. 20.

Art Center Expanding With Mission Plaza


About three years ago local designer Pierre Rademaker unveiled a concept for the downtown in the form of a large-scale, full-color, rendered-in-3-D-perspective "map" that outlined a wish list for city improvements. Among the ideas presented was a greatly expanded SLO Art Center, currently located on the corner of Broad and Monterey streets at Mission Plaza.

The design concept included plans to build another structure across the street on Broad where a parking lot owned by actor G.D. Spradlin currently offers space to drivers with a city-issued monthly parking pass. The two buildings would be linked by a covered walkway that would span Broad Street between each structure's second floor.image

While a second building doesn't seem to be any closer to reality, Art Center executive director Karen Kile realized it was time to consider plans to expand the existing structure to accommodate increased use of the facility, which is sorely in need of more space. The Art Center already utilizes a storage garage to house its permanent art collection; office facilities are substandard; and many classes are at capacity and unable to accept more students.

"We know we can't expand the footprint of the structure without moving across the street or creek, so the only choice is to go up," said Kile, who unveiled some early artist's renderings and models of the prospective second-story addition.

She stressed that current plans are just a jumping-off point and she awaits input from other sources both within and from outside the nonprofit organization. She also acknowledged that the Art Center has yet to secure funds for such an endeavor. But her goals are clear.

"We definitely need a better entrance off of Broad, something that draws people in," said Kile, who noted that the current entrance is on the left side of the building as it faces Monterey and many visitors find it confusing. "And we're packed in pretty tight. Right now classes are at capacity."

The Art Center provides regular classes for children and workshops for adults in addition to display space in three galleries for local and out-of-town artists. Performances have also been held in the center's Main Gallery. It's clear that, although the center has utilized the space to the best of its ability, it's still not enough.

"We're still hoping to expand across into G.D. [Spradlin's] lot, but this [current addition] can happen with or without that," said Kile.

The current, tentative plans call for more office space for the center's staff, as well as increased classroom facilities, storage space, another gallery, decks and balconies, and an elevator–both the subground floor and upper gallery levels currently are not wheelchair-accessible.

"We're still in the planning stages," said Kile, "but this is something that we need to start working on now."

New Digs for New Times


We certainly couldn’t do a special issue on the changing face of downtown San Luis without including our own new building, planned for the corner of Higuera and Carmel streets.

The project has been in the works for over a year now and will be built on three lots currently occupied by Scrubby & Lloyd’s, the old Gilmore gas station, and the 96-year-old Jespersen house.

We’ve done our best to preserve all of them. Developer Rob Rossi will be moving the Victorian Jespersen house to another location, while the 1930s art deco Gilmore station is currently being disassembled to be reconstructed elsewhere. Scrubby’s, alas, is beyond preservation and is slated to be demolished within the next month.

The new New Times Building will be a 10,000-square-foot complex reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style architecture. Its wide, hipped roof will shelter two floors of offices, as well as spacious, 12-foot upper decks surrounding its three sides. The basic idea was to construct a building that looked more like a large, graceful home than an office. The downstairs patio adds to the domestic feel, as does the elevator shaft, which suggests a chimney.New Times

New Times will occupy the entire upper floor, plus a lobby area on the ground floor, with the remaining downstairs space leased to other businesses.

The design is by architect Steve Puglisi of Simon & Puglisi Architects in Shell Beach.

Puglisi is more than just an architect. He’s one of SLO County’s best and most prolific designers, and his many buildings are familiar to everyone in SLO County.

His Spanish-influenced Marshall’s Jewelers building at Higuera and Garden streets in downtown San Luis is one of his early works from the late-1970s, while across from it on Higuera is his Moorish redesign of the Network Mall. The vast, wooden Promontory complex on the hill above U.S. 101 down near the Marsh-Higuera streets intersection is another, and so is the Mediterranean Villa Rosa condominium complex tucked in behind Broad and South streets.

Then there’s the Pismo Pier, whose unusual triple-diamond design allows beachgoers a spacious walk out into the Pacific Ocean.

The most frequently asked question for us over the past year (besides "Who’s the Shredder?") has been, "So when do you break ground?" We haven’t been able to say when, exactly, because we haven’t known. Coordinating all the elements and traversing the city’s permitting process has been long and complicated.

But now we can say almost unequivocally that we’ll probably maybe start in mid-October. We’ll be clearing the lots in September and hope to move into our new home early next summer.

New Times began in downtown San Luis in 1986 and stayed until our move to 197 Santa Rosa St. in 1994. It’ll be great to be back.

Larger Buildings Will Line Santa Rosa


Motorists entering downtown San Luis Obispo from Highway 1 are greeted currently by a series of old homes that have been converted into small offices–for chiropractors, lawyers, the United Way. That's changing. More and larger office buildings will be lining the Santa Rosa Street corridor.

The Monterosa building at Santa Rosa and Monterey streets is the most striking example built so far, but more are on the way, the most notable being a large development project between Mill and Peach streets.

Dubbed the Fredman-Smith building, attorney Jim Smith is proposing a 19,220-square-foot office building to replace a set of buildings now covering five lots, whose current occupants include Finnegan Chiropractic and Gulliver's Travel.

The project design last month cleared the Architectural Review Commission on a 5-1 vote, but it will still require the approval of an administrative use permit because the 35-foot-high building is being proposed in a zone that limits buildings to 25 feet.image

But Pam Ricci, an associate planner for the city, recommends approval of the project because it is the same scale as the nearby Courtney Architects building on Santa Rosa Street and the Washington Mutual Bank building on Walnut Street.

"Overall, staff feels that the design of the building is appropriate at the proposed location and will serve to better define the entrance to the downtown core, without significantly impacting the mixed office/residential neighborhood to the south," Ricci wrote in her staff report.

Smith has said completion of the building is still a couple of years off. Among the anticipated tenants for the new building is Smith's law firm, Smith, Tardiff & Hayes.


An Artists Colony on the Western Edge of Downtown


If Elizabeth MacQueen has her way, Marsh Street will soon become San Luis Obispo's art street. She has plans to build a showroom, studio, and residence on a long-vacant plot of land tucked between Budget Motel and the self-serve car wash which, when combined with the Ramos Gallery, August Editions, Magoo Art Services, Johnson Gallery, and a plan by the Framery to build on the plot in front of the Budget Motel mural, will create a string of art-related businesses in a pedestrian-friendly setting.

For MacQueen, a classically trained sculptor who lived in Europe for 10 years, San Luis Obispo's goal should be to get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.

"We need more patios and more people sitting outside at tables," said MacQueen recently. "That's why we go to Paris! The more pedestrian-friendly a place is, the more people will want to stay there. It just makes sense. They don't care if they have to walk a few blocks if those few blocks are beautiful.image

"Look at Thursday's Farmers Market. Where do they park? Far away. Do they mind walking? No, of course not. Obviously it's better to walk by a restaurant's window than drive by in a blur. When you're walking you're more goal-oriented. You see a sweater in a window and think, yes, I need that sweater. Or you walk by Copeland's and think, yes, I need that new ski outfit. So you walk in and get it. If you make a place beautiful they'll come, no matter how they have to get there."

One sticking point with MacQueen's plan is the lack of parking spaces. Currently only two are planned, which means she'll need a variance from city requirements to proceed with her design. She hopes she won't have to compromise.

"It would ruin the whole ambiance," she said. "I plan to build a meditation garden. [The structure] will be the first legal passive solar greenhouse. There will be a garden on the roof. The whole thing is ecological. Having cars fill up a lot would be awful.

"[The plot] is only two and a half blocks out of the city's parking meter range, and they plan to move down there in the next few years–five at the outside," continued MacQueen. "So it doesn't make any sense for me to put in parking places that will be obsolete in a few years."

MacQueen believes metered street parking should be adequate for her business and, despite wrangling with the city over a single parking space, feels the city has been fair in its dealings with her.

"The city has bent over backwards for me. They really understand that I'm charitably giving a beautification to the town."

MacQueen also thinks the current location of the self-serve car wash would be a better spot for the Chamber of Commerce, which she sees as hidden away on Chorro with no parking nearby.

"We could also have a little pocket park," added MacQueen. "And I'd like to have a little cappuccino machine so people can stop by and have a coffee and read some art magazines. I plan to build right out to the sidewalk and have awnings and big picture windows."

Her architect, Leonard Grant, recently designed the new Cafe Roma, and MacQueen believes he understands the importance of exterior aesthetics. The building itself is a mix of Mediterranean and French styles which reminds MacQueen of New Orleans and the work of architect Richard Graves.

"I also want to have an artist's guest quarters to house performers appearing at the Performing Arts Center," said MacQueen. "Obviously I can't house whole orchestras, but I could certainly put up the principle dancer or artist. I want to put in a dance floor, a piano. It will be like a hotel suite that could accommodate the performer's family."

MacQueen got the idea one evening while having dinner at Cal Poly President Warren Baker's house. He asked MacQueen to attend and to act as interpreter for a visiting Italian artist. MacQueen learned the artist was disappointed with the accommodations for him and his family, and her idea was born.

"Most of these artists have no automobile; they're picked up by volunteers. My plan is to have bicycles for them to use, a studio to work in, a deck overlooking the meditation garden, a lap pool for exercise. I'm hoping to get a grant from Cal Poly to make this possible."

Her design goes before the Architectural Review Commission on Friday, Sept. 3, at 7 p.m. She hopes interested citizens will voice their support for a project she believes will help revitalize the upper Marsh Street area.

Changes on the Edges

Downtown isn’t the only part of SLO Town seeing changes. Many major projects are being considered for areas around the city limits.

Three of those are credited for spurring development downtown. They are:

• Remodeling of the Central Coast Mall. After years of neglect the mall is getting an entirely new look in the next year. The center section will be removed (leaving Gottschalk's and the Embassy Suites hotel) and replaced with large stores.

• The developers of the 530,000-square-foot Marketplace envision it as a second downtown. The controversial project was given a three-month extension to work out a number of questions and is headed back to the City Council on Sept. 13.

• Development of Froom Ranch. What was once known as the Eagle Hardware project on Los Osos Valley Road continues, even though the owners of Eagle Hardware have taken their business over to the Marketplace. Located just outside of the city limits, the 221,000-square-foot store still needs county supervisors’ approval.

And these are not alone. The county is doubling the size of the SLO Airport terminal, and annexation of the land around the airport could lead to widespread development of the southern end of town.

And don’t forget Cal Poly. Prosperity has meant more tax dollars to spend on education. Ground has already been broken for major sports complex and a new parking garage, and plans are under way to build the first new dormitory in decades.

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