Envisioning Pismo Beach's future

clambert@thetribunenews.comJuly 13, 2013 

It’s midmorning on a Thursday during the summer in Pismo Beach. Visitors, a few wearing long-sleeve shirts in the cool, gray morning, stroll down Pomeroy Avenue toward the pier as restaurant employees prepare for the lunch rush.

Already, a line has formed outside Splash Café. Down the street, workers are installing a bright new awning outside Hotlix Candy Store as customers shop for sweets inside.

Longtime employee Margaret Hunter, who has worked in the area for 30 years, including at least 15 years at the candy store, paused to consider changes she’s seen.

“I’ve seen businesses go out of business, old buildings taken down,” she recalled. “There’s a lot more people now. This year has been really busy for us.”

Other business owners and employees in downtown Pismo Beach mentioned several improvements over the past two decades: decorative paving on some sidewalks, new streetlights, revamped parking on Price Street and an oceanfront boardwalk.

But some larger changes, such as those envisioned in previous planning efforts over the past 25 years, have not come to pass, and the city doesn’t have an approved comprehensive plan for the downtown area.

Now, the downtown could again be poised for change. The Pismo Beach City Council will hold a joint meeting with the city’s Planning Commission and Parking Advisory Committee on Tuesday to start the process to build a new vision for downtown,  identified as the area bordered by the intersection of Dolliver Street (Highway 1) and Price Street, Highway 101, Pismo Creek and the ocean.

Over the next few months, the city will likely hold numerous discussion groups with local property and business owners, larger workshops, walking tours of downtown, surveys and other efforts to eventually develop a comprehensive plan, which could come back to the council in the spring.

A few factors have precipitated the discussion. Two hotel projects are in the works, including an approved 67-room hotel at 147 Stimson St., and another proposed for a key property next to the pier parking lot — the dirt lot that had either been vacant or used for parking for years. The conceptual plan calls for up to 110 rooms, meeting space, retail space, a rooftop pool and underground parking.

The economy is improving, which could prompt business or property owners to spruce up their properties. And Pismo Beach has a new, energetic city manager, Jim Lewis, who led economic development efforts as Atascadero’s assistant city manager.

He envisions downtown Pismo as becoming the social, cultural and economic hub — perhaps not only of the South County, but the entire county.

“The time, I believe, is now to move forward with a comprehensive review of downtown that must involve the property owners, business owners and stakeholders,” Lewis said.

Creating a plan with teeth, one that has a chance to be implemented, will require buy-in from those groups as well as local residents — some of whom are cautious about changing the current, lucrative character of downtown.

“Many times when we have a change in city manager, everyone starts getting a vision and you have to be careful. We have to recognize our base,” said Don Day, a 33-year resident and owner of the Ward building, a 25,000-square-foot structure built in 1927 at Dolliver Street and Pomeroy Avenue.

Pismo Beach is the Valley’s beach town, he said — unpretentious, funky and unique.

“We have something that works. Why don’t we massage it a little?” Day said, suggesting that instead the city focus on minor projects, like cleaning and sealing the decorative sidewalks, which could show immediate aesthetic improvements.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he added. “Let’s not do something that we can’t undo later.”

In response, Lewis said: “It’s broken when you have vacant properties and fenced-in properties and underutilized lots. This is not intended to cause harm to existing businesses.”

Past brainstorming

The city has led numerous planning efforts over the past three decades. Elements of two major efforts, including a draft downtown specific plan in 1990 and an economic development plan in 1998, have found their way into other city policy documents.

Some suggestions in those plans have happened: improvements were made to the pier plaza area, restrooms were added to downtown, parking on Price Street was redone and the pier parking lot was restriped.

But several major ideas did not gain traction. Among the recommendations in a 1989 study were a new convention center with underground parking and a trail meandering east from Pismo Creek to a municipal golf course in Price Canyon.

In an interview, Lewis said he thinks downtown will always retain its visitor-serving areas, but wondered if other types of retail stores or public improvements might draw more local residents to the area, especially in the offseason.

For example, could a street be closed off, allowing some restaurants to offer outdoor seating on a pedestrian-only plaza? Should the pier parking lot be redeveloped as an outdoor amphitheater or other public space? If either happens, where does the parking go?

Change has to be driven by property owners, Mayor Shelly Higginbotham added, and depends on their desire to do so. But drawing more people downtown during the offseason would benefit them, and in turn, the city.

“They’ve been there a long time,” she added. “Wouldn’t it be nice to create an influx of business for them year-round?”

Peter Candela, chief executive officer of the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce, foresees subtle changes over time.

“Do we have a problem getting people here? No,” he said. “I think we need to change a bit down there. We have dirt lots. We want aesthetically beautiful views for people. So those are the things we need to do something about. But I don’t see us closing down and knocking things down like Avila.”

Ideas for improvements

Some residents and business owners interviewed last week suggested minor changes, such as fixing cracked sidewalks. Jeannie Hernandez, who handles bookkeeping for her brother’s business, Esteem Surf Co. on Cypress Street, would like the city to do away with paid parking.

Ross Currie, who with wife Joanne bought Splash Café in 1991, suggested a simple beautification process such as replacing the “rusty oil drums” on the beach with colorful trash cans, and getting uniform awnings downtown.

He likes the idea of underground parking at the pier lot, and suggested bringing back a Ferris wheel, which Pismo had at one time. But Currie also sounded cautious, and urged officials to determine exactly what they’re trying to accomplish in the revitalization plan.

“For 150 years, Pismo is where people from the Valley have come to cool off,” he said. “Those people are families, working class. If they want to come in with major redevelopment and put in more wine bars, you’re going to put us out of business.”

Longtime Pismo resident Effie McDermott had bigger ideas, including adding commercial development to the city’s pier. She also suggested the city purchase the vacant dirt lot (which it tried to do, unsuccessfully, a few years ago) and turn it and the pier lot into a public space.

“It’s sort of the living room of the downtown,” she said.

Downtown resident Jane Gould, who rents a small cottage near the pier parking lot, was more cautious when asked what changes she’d like to see downtown.

“I’m from the old school,” said Gould, who has lived there five years. “I really like it the way it is and I would hate to see too many big-time changes.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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