Kenneth Schwartz, former SLO mayor and father of Mission Plaza, dies at 94

Kenneth “Ken” Schwartz, who served as mayor of San Luis Obispo for a decade and was instrumental in the development of Mission Plaza, died Saturday, his family said. He was 94.

Schwartz lived in San Luis Obispo for nearly 70 years.

For over 36 years, he served as a faculty member, associate dean and interim dean in Cal Poly’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design, retiring in 1988.

Schwartz was also selected as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, an honor extended to only 3% of American architects, Paul Neel, his close friend and former student, told The Tribune.

Schwartz held a number of public service positions, serving as San Luis Obispo mayor from 1969 to 1979. He also served on the San Luis Obispo City Council and both city and county planning commissions.

Schwartz was especially known for his work on Mission Plaza, where, early in his first term as mayor, he “could be found on Saturdays laying bricks with other volunteers,” according to a Tribune editorial from April 1973.

Schwartz worked with Cal Poly students to develop a plan to convince voters to close Monterey Street in front of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Construction on the downtown plaza began in 1969.

Schwartz received a 1997 American Planning Association Distinguished Leadership Award because he “steered the city through turbulent times in the 1970s” and “helped San Luis Obispo gain a reputation as one of the most beautiful and well-planned small cities on the West Coast,” according to the organization.

The San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce named Schwartz as Citizen of the Year in 1993.

“This city was very important to him,” his daughter, Lorraine Riggio Schwartz, told The Tribune. “He loved SLO. He did everything he could to encourage the city to grow in the direction he felt was healthy for it.”

Not only was Schwartz devoted to the city, but he cared deeply for his family: Riggio Schwartz said her father was involved in Camp Fire and Boy Scouts as a way to support her and her brother’s activities, and he made sure to spend quality time with his family.

Councilman Myron Graham, left, and Mayor Kenneth Schwartz survey city creeks to improve drainage in 1973.

“Our parents always set us up so you could do anything you put your mind to, and they always provided the support and the backdrop to allow us to grow to whatever dimension we needed to grow to,” his son, Jan Schwartz, said. “It’s hard to find an area where we’re not proud of him and his commitment to the city and the university.”

Pierre Rademaker, another friend of Schwartz’s, said Schwartz was the first person he met in San Luis Obispo in the early 1970s. The two men were friendly, as they both taught at Cal Poly, but became close around the time they worked together on a concept plan for downtown San Luis Obispo in the early 1990s.

“This was the first time we rolled up our sleeves and designed something together,” Rademaker, a graphic designer, said. “I came away from that experience with a deep respect for him.”

Rademaker added that both Schwartz and his wife, Martha, who died in 2004, were remarkable people.

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Former San Luis Obispo Mayor Ken Schwartz appears in a scene from the documentary “Lives Well Lived.” Sky Bergman

“He was obviously very opinionated, but he was never shy about his positions,” Rademaker said of Ken Schwartz. “He held his head high and believed in what he was doing.”

Neel recalled that Schwartz always made himself available to everyone, from students to colleagues.

“He was an upstanding human being and an upstanding teacher, too,” said Neel, who taught alongside Schwartz in Cal Poly’s architecture department for years. The two men even shared an office.

After both men retired, Neel said they would meet for breakfast at Del Monte Cafe in San Luis Obispo on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Both men would order scrambled eggs, toast and coffee, and Schwartz often ordered a pancake too, Neel said. But the flapjacks at the restaurant were too big for Schwartz, so he began ordering a smaller one, which became known as the “Ken Schwartz pancake,” Neel recalled.

“Like any good friend, you become very close to them. We were almost like brothers,” Neel said. “He was a marvelous individual.”

Riggio Schwartz said that her father always said he led a wonderful life.

“He never wanted to be in the center,” Jan Schwartz said. “He wanted to step back and let others shine.”

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Gabby Ferreira is a breaking news and general assignment reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A native of Houston, Texas, she was a reporter in Tucson, Arizona; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Palm Springs, California, before moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2016.