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A-Town 2.0? Atascadero ushers in plans to grow downtown 

Atascadero Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore sits back in a chair on a Monday afternoon and looks around his City Hall office.

Scattered and leaned up against the walls of his office are poster boards of color-coded city zoning maps, schematics of upcoming development projects, and a printout of Atascadero’s “Downtown Revitalization Plan” that was adopted way back in 2000—an unrealized plan shooting for a second wind.

click to enlarge WANTED: VIBRANCY :  Downtown Atascadero is quietly becoming more vibrant and catching the attention of locals and SLO County passersby. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • WANTED: VIBRANCY : Downtown Atascadero is quietly becoming more vibrant and catching the attention of locals and SLO County passersby.

Dunsmore, formerly a city planner for San Luis Obispo, joined Atascadero last fall and was quickly presented with a tall order: to facilitate more commercial development in the city. He explained to New Times that the root of the city’s desire to build up its economy is about creating balance.

“Atascadero is a lot different than SLO,” Dunsmore said. “SLO has a lot of jobs, a lot of economy, and they have a shortage of housing. Here in Atascadero, it’s the other way around. We have a significant shortage of an economic base and very limited jobs here, yet we have a lot of housing.”

This isn’t a new predicament for Atascadero. The town is a well-established bedroom community with 29,000 residents who tend to work and shop outside city limits. But the city is trying to head in a new direction. 

Housing demand is on the rise and the zones designated as residential are getting gobbled up quickly. Without a comparable increase in commercial activity, the city could be headed toward a fiscal crisis.

“We’ve reached that point now where it is very challenging for us to be able to continue to support this number of houses with having a smaller commercial base,” Dunsmore said. “It’s a basic math issue.”

With that reality, Atascadero is pushing hard to inject life into its economy, to bring about a rebirth of the downtown and El Camino Real business districts that’s long been talked about but never realized.

City leaders feel that the time is right for a new era in A-town.

“I think what’s happened now is the economy has recovered, and more and more people are discovering the Central Coast,” said Bob Kelly, Atascadero City Council member and former mayor. “There’s some very good opportunities for people to come to Atascadero. Because we have fallen behind in development, the opportunities are there, and the people are knocking on our doors.”

Revitalizing downtown

Conversations about downtown Atascadero usually start with a question: Where is downtown?

That’s part of the problem. Atascadero has struggled for years to create a cohesive, recognizable, and vibrant downtown district. Most locals consider downtown to encompass El Camino Real, between Traffic Way and the Colony Square shopping center, Entrada Street, and the area around Sunken Gardens. Over the years, the downtown area has become an awkward mix of offices, retail, and restaurants, numerous vacant and undeveloped properties, and limited foot traffic.

The city has taken some visible strides to change one side of that mix. There are new restaurants opening up, like Street Side Ale House on El Camino Real. More are on the way.

Two new restaurants are planned for downtown, adjacent to the Galaxy Theatre; new restaurant and retail pads will replace the Coco’s restaurant that is now empty on El Camino south of downtown; a bakery is coming to the Carlton Hotel; plans for retail, restaurants, and a hotel are in the works near the Walmart site; and a restaurant is opening in May next to the Holiday Inn adjacent to Highway 101 at West Front Road.

click to enlarge LOOKING FOR CHANGE:  Atascadero is welcoming businesses far and wide. Walmart is breaking ground this summer and more hotels and restaurants are expected in the upcoming years. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • LOOKING FOR CHANGE: Atascadero is welcoming businesses far and wide. Walmart is breaking ground this summer and more hotels and restaurants are expected in the upcoming years.

Atascadero also plans to use leftover funds of $3.1 million from its defunct Community Redevelopment Agency to build a pedestrian footbridge connecting Colony Square with Sunken Gardens.

Though the change is subtle for now, local business owners are starting to feel a difference in the atmosphere.

“There is more of a buzz,” said Diane Helbert, owner of Bru Coffehouse on El Camino Real. “A couple of new places have come in; there’s a positive energy. … It might not be that apparent to a lot of people, but when you’ve been down there for a little while, you do notice those types of changes.”

Another idea on the table to boost downtown’s vibrancy is to ask the North County Farmers Market to move there.

The market has operated downtown before—on both Entrada Street and in Sunken Gardens—but today holds its weekly market in the parking lot of Smart & Final on Wednesday afternoons. 

North County Farmers Market manager Robyn Gable told New Times that she’s open to moving the market again, but expressed frustration for being tugged around so much over the years.

“[The city] has to consider us like a business,” Gable said. “It’s not just some mobile thing. It’s a big consideration [to change locations].”

Terrie Banish, the city’s new deputy city manager in charge of events and marketing, is responsible for fostering positive relationships with local businesses, helping promote them to the community, and creating new community events that will gather residents and visitors from around SLO County.

“What we’ve wanted to focus on is really awareness on what Atascadero has to offer,” Banish said. “We have the Charles Paddock Zoo, the Galaxy Theatre, a lot going on now downtown with restaurants, and new ones opening as well.”

Banish can take credit for the success of the Tamale Festival in January. Brew by the Zoo is happening on April 30; Lakefest at Atascadero Lake is in June; and the first annual Central Coast Cider Festival is happening on May 7.

“We want to create events that will bring people out of their homes here in the city and enjoy their town,” Banish said. “And then also we want people around the county to come down and visit Atascadero.”

Bru Coffeehouse owner Helbert appreciates the difference in the demeanor of city staff and officials in the past year or so. 

“They’re very positive, more positive than I’ve seen in a long time, and really wanting to work with people,” Helbert said. “There’s just a willingness to cooperate and an openness, like, ‘Hey what can we do for you guys?’ Their positivity is very palpable.”

Building a base

A 7-mile commercial corridor in a small town is a nightmare scenario for a city planner, but Dunsmore embraces the challenge of Atascadero’s unruly El Camino Real sprawl. He reminds New Times of Atascadero’s young history. Even though Atascadero was one of California’s first planned communities, it wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1979.

“Atascadero is a baby,” Dunsmore said. “Before it was a city, a lot of things happened without adequate planning or adequate thought. It was reactive. Now it’s time to start doing that quality planning.”

click to enlarge A-TOWN TEAM:  Public Works Director Nick DeBar (left), Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore (center), and Deputy City Manager Terrie Banish (right) are all new Atascadero employees working to boost the city’s economy and infrastructure. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • A-TOWN TEAM: Public Works Director Nick DeBar (left), Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore (center), and Deputy City Manager Terrie Banish (right) are all new Atascadero employees working to boost the city’s economy and infrastructure.

E.G. Lewis conceived the Atascadero colony in the early 1900s. Lewis’ vision for the town didn’t hold up over time, and what became of Atascadero, from a city planning standpoint, was a mess.

Then, in the city’s early history, development wasn’t welcomed. In the 1970s and 1980s, city officials went out of their way to dissuade developers from coming to town because it threatened the town’s rural charm.

“At that time, the city was very difficult to deal with,” City Councilmember Kelly remembered. “If you look at the makeup of some city councils we had, they were just really anti-development. It just seemed like they tried to fight everybody [and] throw up as many hurdles as possible.”

That grip loosened over time. Yet, no project was more emblematic of the town’s deep-seated resistance to corporate newcomers than the recent push to stop Walmart. Community groups squared off against the city and Walmart in what resulted in an eight-year legal battle.

“I don’t know if you could find any other Walmart that had to go up against what they had to in this town,” Kelly said.

Opponents of the project ultimately lost that battle, and the Walmart shopping center is set to break ground this summer.

The Walmart shopping center is one coveted revenue stream for the city to boost its struggling commercial base. For residents who are concerned about Walmart posing a threat to local businesses, the city believes the opposite. 

“You consistently hear the fear of, ‘Hey, this is going to kill other Mom and Pop businesses,’” Dunsmore said. “Time and time and time again, I’ve seen that not to be true. I originally thought that was the case, but I’ve seen quite the opposite in most towns. When you do have a regional shopping center, regardless of the name of it, you get more people in your town that utilize your goods and services in your town, your restaurants and other retail uses. It’s a spillover effect.”

Atascadero’s sprawling features aren’t just a problem for city planning, but also for road infrastructure.

“We’ve got a really huge challenge in this city, where we’re 26 square miles and we have 130 miles of road,” Public Works Director Nick DeBar said. 

DeBar said that revenue from the 2014 0.5 percent sale tax increase has been helpful in “stopping the bleeding” on deteriorating road surfaces and that building up the city’s economy can bring in more money to make more necessary road improvements.

Other problems

Not all residents of Atascadero are on board with the new gung-ho, self-promoting personality adopted by their city leaders.

click to enlarge LOVE LOCAL:  Wendy Estus (center), with Love Local Boutique, asks Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore (left) and Deputy City Manager Terrie Banish (right) if the North County Farmers Market will return to downtown. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • LOVE LOCAL: Wendy Estus (center), with Love Local Boutique, asks Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore (left) and Deputy City Manager Terrie Banish (right) if the North County Farmers Market will return to downtown.

To some community members, the problems in Atascadero that most glaringly need attention aren’t being addressed. Take the crumbling Atascadero Printery building, for example, which is about to go on sale at a tax auction because its previous owner, Kelly Gearhart, was convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison.

The Printery, a 19,000-square-foot landmark on the National Registry of Historic Places, was critically damaged by the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake, and will demand upwards of $10 million for repairs and restoration. 

The structure was a valuable community building for most of the 20th century. Now, it’s deteriorating in plain sight—blocks away from City Hall—yet Atascadero has taken no action to reclaim it.

A community nonprofit, the Printery Foundation, formed in January and vowed to take on that work, with the long-term goal of restoring the building for the community’s enjoyment.

The Printery Foundation attempted to collaborate with the city in March to devise a strategy for apprehending the building, but the city said it wasn’t in the budget to purchase, even though the Foundation claimed it would guarantee that it would cover the costs in donations and grants.

“They did not want what we were going for with the Printery,” Printery Foundation Co-Chairwoman Karen McNamara said.

Beyond the Printery, McNamara believes the city should spend more of its energy and resources on pressing community problems. McNamara named homelessness and drug addiction as prevalent issues in town that should be higher on the city’s priority list.

“I just think our focus is in the wrong place,” McNamara said. “They’ve got this vision thing, but they’re going after the vision instead of going after the problems we have today. We’re not going to be a tourist destination. It’s not going to happen. We have the zoo and a nice City Hall—that’s it.”

City officials say they aren’t interested in fundamentally changing the community—only enhancing what it already is. 

“There’s a certain funky, great thing about Atascadero that we want to keep,” Dunsmore said. “We want to keep Atascadero Atascadero, but at the same time we want to be a little bit better. Right now, we feel like we have a little ways to go before we’re complete and self-contained and sustainable in that arena.”

click to enlarge HOUSING IN DEMAND:  Housing in Atascadero is outgrowing the city’s commercial base, which is causing an imbalance that the city is trying to remedy. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • HOUSING IN DEMAND: Housing in Atascadero is outgrowing the city’s commercial base, which is causing an imbalance that the city is trying to remedy.

On April 20, the City Council and city staff convened for a special strategic meeting. Councilman Kelly told New Times the next day that the meeting was, in part, a discussion about the strategies available to spur commercial development. One idea tossed around was hiring a consultant to analyze the El Camino Real area and make specific recommendations for rezoning certain areas to tee it up for better commercial success.

Kelly’s gut reaction was to hit the brakes a little bit.

“How is all of this going to benefit the people in our community?” he questioned.

Kelly, who has lived in Atascadero for 41 years, took a step back and thought about the neighboring cities 15 miles north and south. One city has been transformed by unceasing tourism and another by the presence of 20,000 college students. In Paso Robles, locals have to share their city with tourists. In SLO, residents put up with raucous Cal Poly partiers, bars, and parking meters. Neither model appeals to Kelly as a good option for Atascadero.

He took a deep breath and let out a sigh. Welcoming economic growth is OK. Embracing the future is healthy. But whatever evolution Atascadero is in for, it ought to be negotiated in a public conversation, he concluded.

“This is the opportune time to really look forward,” Kelly said. “I think we need to really open it up to the public and get the public’s input. What do you want your city to be?”

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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