San Luis Obispo was a late adopter of mall and big-box shopping.
The combination of a strong downtown business improvement association, a careful City Council and a growing environmental movement slowed a trend that hollowed out many downtowns in California in the 1960s.
About the time a shopping mall was built on Madonna Road, the city was undertaking the unprecedented step of closing Monterey Street in front of the Mission to create Mission Plaza. Perhaps the shopping center hoped to catch a little downtown magic by including the word plaza in the Madonna Plaza name.
Some feared the December 1968 opening of a mall, with free parking and some stores open on Sundays, would destroy downtown. But Madonna Plaza and downtown have survived.
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Retail trends can be fickle, however. Not one of the original Madonna Plaza stores remains. We still buy shoes, but not at Gallenkamp or Kirby’s. There is a pet store, but it’s not Pet Manor. Maxwell’s and W.T. Grant preceded Beno’s, Mervyn’s and Gottschalks in death. Even one of the most stable businesses of all, a bank (United California Bank), is now only a memory. T.G. & Y. Variety is gone, along with variety shows on television. The mall had two drive-through locations: the bank and later a Fotomat.
Change has been the one constant over the years.