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Save our downtown 

San Luis Obispo is at a crossroads and its fate will be determined by the upcoming city council and mayoral elections. A convergence of factors, a “perfect storm” of sorts, has led the current city council to disregard several cornerstone documents—the San Luis Obispo Community Design Guidelines, the Historic Preservation Guidelines, and the Conceptual Physical Plan for the City’s Center—in their attempt to usher in more urban infill housing and more hotels, to increase the city’s tax base.

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To accommodate the demands of two massive, mixed-use developments—the Chinatown Project and the Garden Street Terraces—the Downtown Core’s building height limit has been significantly increased (far in excess of Santa Barbara’s current height limit), and for these two projects the parking allocation has been reduced, master list historical buildings will be demolished, and building height setbacks from the sidewalk will be eliminated. All of these factors will lead to increased traffic congestion, irretrievable loss of historic character and the “canyonization” of our downtown streets and public open spaces. The unique, authentic, small-town character of San Luis Obispo will be lost forever.

The “perfect storm” of factors leading up to the crossroads includes an accelerated schedule for seismic retrofits, a decline in city tax revenues, a state mandate for more affordable housing, Senate Bill 1818—a 2004 law that makes it easier to roll back height limit zoning requirements to accommodate low-income units, even if that means defying the wishes of the constituents—and finally, the need for downtown San Luis Obispo to compete with commercial development located immediately outside its city limits (such as the Dalidio property).

A majority of the council, including Paul Brown and Dave Romero who are now up for reelection, have been greasing the wheels of downtown development in response to these factors, but at the risk of compromising our city’s identity and authentic, historic character. Who, you may ask, is attempting to head off this perfect storm?

Save Our Downtown is a citizens’ group formed more than a year ago to protect and enhance the character, heritage, and visual appeal of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Core. This group is comprised of a dozen active participants with an e-mail distribution list of several hundred more who share the concern that the Downtown Core remains economically viable and visually appealing to residents and visitors.

During the past year, the group has been attending council and advisory body meetings to express concerns, has held workshops, attended Mission Plaza and Thursday Night Market events, and submitted written comments to the city specific to projects proposed for the Downtown Core.

The group’s Mission Statement and Goals were recently forwarded to all candidates for council and mayoral positions in the upcoming November elections, with the request that they respond within ten days indicating their support for these principals. The Mission Statement reads as follows:

“Visitors and residents are drawn to downtown San Luis Obispo because of its walkability, sense of community and the flow of history, complemented by an architectural timeline of diverse, sometimes quirky, human-scaled structures. A concentration of small, locally owned businesses offers both residents and visitors unique shopping and dining experiences. A skyline of buildings, predominantly two-stories in height, allows ample access to sunlight as well as unimpeded views of the Morros throughout downtown. At the heart of the city lies its “reason for being,” Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, established in 1772 alongside a meandering creek. Currently, this landmark building remains the centerpiece of downtown, visually un-eclipsed by all neighboring structures. In an effort to maintain the unique qualities of this city’s downtown, the group has as its goals:

“1. To preserve the character of the city by keeping Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and the surrounding immediate spaces as the centerpiece of our downtown, and as part of that preservation, encourage that any new buildings complement surrounding structures in height, style, and design.

“2. To preserve all remaining historic downtown buildings and the flow of history associated with these buildings. To maintain current building heights of no more than three stories (or 35 to 40 feet) to insure that all walkable public spaces have ample access to sunlight and unobstructed views of the mountains in the east and the Morros to the west. As new buildings are introduced into the downtown, to ensure that the streetscape will not be overwhelmed and “canyonized” by overly tall buildings and so protect the visual integrity and views of the Morros for those who live and work in San Luis Obispo.

“To encourage that the green space around San Luis Creek be expanded as another focal point of the downtown area and to encourage more public use of its surrounding areas. Ensure that new building in its immediate area be of low height and set back far enough from the creek itself so as not to detract from its character and visual appeal.

“3. In order to preserve our sense of community, the city should promote citizen participation in the planning and design of all proposed developments in the downtown, in compliance with the San Luis Obispo Participation Outline (1988 by the Planning Commission and Community Development Director).

“4. To insure, however possible, that the current inventory of small, locally owned businesses downtown is not depleted. To insure that the quality and ambiance of the street spaces downtown contribute to the economic success and longevity of these businesses.”

Unequivocal support for the above Mission Statement and Goals came from three candidates: Terry Mohan, Jan Marx, and Dan Carpenter. Candidates Dave Romero and John Ashbaugh quibbled with a number of our stated goals. No response was received from candidates Paul Brown, Marcia Nelson, or Arnold Ruiz.

I hope that you will now know how to vote this November if you are as concerned as we are about preserving San Luis Obispo’s unique character while promoting sensible growth that is not directed solely by taxes and state mandates.


Alan Cooper is Chair of Save Our Downtown and has lived in San Luis Obispo for 35 years. Contact him at acooper@calpoly.edu.

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