Why polish a diamond when it shines already

In SLO a bunch of people gathered to find faults with a downtown that’s widely acknowledged to be a California treasure.

jtarica@thetribunenews.comApril 27, 2013 

A pair of stories last week — one literally on top of another on Friday’s front page — illustrate just how different the challenges are for two local downtowns.

In Atascadero, the cornerstone hotel in the city’s core is once again entering a period of turmoil with the impending closure of Colby Jack’s restaurant and bakery.

Meanwhile, in San Luis Obispo, the happiest place outside of Disneyland, a bunch of people gathered to somehow find several faults with a downtown that’s widely acknowledged to be a California treasure.

How much do you think Atascadero wishes it had San Luis Obispo’s problems, and how pleased should San Luis Obispo be that the greatest fear it faces is not being awesome enough?

I didn’t attend the brainstorming session sponsored by the city’s Downtown Association on Wednesday, but I find it somewhat comical how dissatisfied residents sound with their current city center.

As reporter AnnMarie Cornejo summarized the crystal-ball-gazing and dream-weaving, “Those attending the meeting painted a picture of a vibrant downtown that flourishes with a mixture of retail and restaurants, offers various cultural events and is easily accessible and walkable.”

This was followed with the requisite hand-ringing over panhandlers, apparently excessive numbers of corporate stores and too many bars and restaurants.

Oh, if only we could reach that bucolic future and reform this dilapidated dump of a town we’re forced to endure today.

Really, SLO? You have this many gripes with your downtown?

If you asked me, this idealistic vision has pretty much been achieved already.

How is San Luis Obispo’s downtown not vibrant now? What is wrong with the current business mix, which features classy chains, quality local shops and a wide array of dining and drinking opportunities?

As for access and walkability, the city has built multiple multi-storied parking garages well-located around the core, traffic on Higuera Street is calm and strolling the tree-lined streets is always a pleasure.

The dumbest example of a solution in search of a problem is the idea that we need shuttles to run lazy visitors from those parking structures to the downtown core, as though a walk of one or two blocks is simply an unbearable inconvenience.

You know, if you want to promote walkability, it usually helps if people actually get out of their vehicles and put one foot in front of the other, then repeat.

So while I appreciate the Downtown Association’s intentions to further polish this local gem to an even brighter sheen, this problem-solving exercise is much ado about nothing — or at least very little.

The same can’t be said for San Luis Obispo’s neighbor to the north.

Sometime around the end of next month, one of the best restaurants in Atascadero will vacate the city’s top hotel.

Both Colby Jack’s and the Carlton are local businesses, not corporate chains. They are easily accessible, right off the freeway. And both, in their shared space, are free of any pesky homeless people, who can happily occupy Sunken Gardens since no one else is using it.

Despite all those benefits, symbiosis between the hotel and its tenant restaurants remains as elusive as ever.

Assuming a new eatery will open at some point later this year, that will make four different sets of cooks in the Carlton kitchen in less than four years.

Why this trend continues to persist and how it might possibly be stopped is a challenge that hopefully owner David Weyrich and the next chef can solve.

But if you want to talk about an very real and soon very noticeable downtown problem, that’s it, not the minor nuisances that vex the folks in SLO.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.

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