A handful of prominent commercial properties have been left vacant and unused for years on San Luis Obispo’s north side — thanks mostly to a variety of factors outside the city’s control.
Just off California Boulevard, an abandoned and blighted gas station attracts vagrants. On Foothill Boulevard, a shuttered McDonald’s hasn’t served a Big Mac in nearly five years. Nearby, the University Square shopping center down the road that once hummed with activity has lost its two major tenants and become an eyesore.
Each property represents untapped potential revenue for the city, but ultimately the responsibility for revitalization lies with the property owner. While one of the properties is poised for progress, the two others are stuck in limbo.
“As a city we can encourage an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and creativity and foster a sense of optimism,” said Mayor Jan Marx. “We don’t want abandoned properties in the city, but we have such a thing as real property rights and we can’t force a seller to accept a price lower than what they want.”
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Of the three vacant commercial properties, there are only plans in place for University Square.
“In general, the city wants to see property used and developed to the best and fullest potential,” said Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson. “Development comes and goes and depends on a lot of factors like the economy, financing or someone’s vision or passion.
“We can’t make people develop, but we can encourage it.”
Marx said the city’s toolbox for stimulating development is limited to zoning, facilitating financial incentives, awarding entitlements and upholding the city’s rules and design standards.
“Ultimately it comes down to the owner of the property,” said Marx.
San Luis Obispo economic development manager Lee Johnson said the city is always looking at places for opportunity and routinely seeks out developers or property owners to see how it can help.
“There are things we can do that are in the city’s control and things we can’t do,” said Johnson. “There are only certain levers in our hands that we are able to pull to have things change.”
The gas station
Shattered glass from dozens of liquor bottles glitters on the asphalt, among sprawling weeds. Inside the dilapidated, long-vacant gas station on the northwest corner of Taft and Kentucky Avenue, remnants of the vagrants and vandals who have partied inside remain. Months of old food, booze bottles, drug paraphernalia and trash litter a makeshift table made of tires and a piece of wood.
Eran Fields, a Los Angeles developer, had planned to build a large mixed-use project there, but concerned neighbors challenged the size of the development and eventually Fields was forced to scale it down.
“It became financially unfeasible,” said Fields. “The neighbors made it way too difficult to develop something that made sense. The lands costs are too high to build something so small. What you see today is the result of a tedious and ridiculous process.”
Although Fields was successful in getting a project approved by the City Council in 2012 — including seven townhomes and commercial space suitable for small eateries and retail shops — he has abandoned plans to move ahead. Instead he is hoping to sell the property for $1.7 million.
“The city wants development,” said Fields. “It is unfortunate, but they allowed these neighbors to dictate what will be built there and now everyone loses. Instead of a brand-new project, those neighbors now have the homeless breaking in and living there.”
Fields acknowledged that the former gas station is an eyesore.
“It is what it is,” said Fields. “People cut through the fence and vandalize it. It is not something we have been neglectful about. We can’t monitor it every day, all day. The only way to do something about it is to build something there. And that is what I was trying to do.”
In 2009 the McDonald’s restaurant on Foothill Boulevard near the Cal Poly campus shut down after 40 years at the location. It is still vacant today.
Although it has been vacant for nearly five years, the property is well maintained. The parking lot is kept swept and free of weeds. The only sign of vandalism is a window that was once shattered but is now neatly taped back together.
The property is owned by Pacifica Investments LLC, a family-run investment group passed down over through the generations that owns dozens of key commercial properties throughout the city.
There are no clear plans for the property. Larry Smyth, of Farrell and Smyth, manages the property and keeps it maintained.
“We just finished painting the parking posts,” he said. “We intend to keep it looking good.” Smyth said that several people have inquired about the property, but their business plans didn’t meet the needs of the owners.
The vacancies at University Square shopping center at Santa Rosa Avenue and Foothill Boulevard seem to outnumber the actual tenants who have continued to lease at the center.
It is one of the last commercial developments that people see as they head north out of San Luis Obispo and one of the first areas that greets people as they come into town from Highway 1. A large section of the center, once thriving with New Frontiers and Bank of America, sits unoccupied, while the large parking area is used as free parking by a smattering of people headed elsewhere in the city.
The architecture dates to the late 1960s when it was built. A shaded, concrete bench, once used as a resting place for patrons, has become a hangout for the homeless. Empty cereal boxes, other food containers and even a roll of toilet paper can be found cast into the bushes.
Developer Nick Tompkins purchased the property in 2012 from a group of investors and plans to redevelop it in the coming year. He anticipates submitting preliminary plans to the city in coming weeks. Tompkins quickly concedes that the shopping center needs a facelift.
“It is very much an eyesore,” aid Tompkins.
The city slated the area as one of special interest as it updates the land use and circulation elements of its General Plan – the city’s master plan for growth. City planners see the area as having potential for a mixture of uses including high- density housing. For now, it will remain a shopping center.
Tompkins has no plans to incorporate housing, saying that he had considered the idea but found it financially unfeasible. Tompkins plans to add a few modernizing touches to the center and bring in a mix of tenants he believes are needed by both nearby residents and students who frequent the area because of its proximity to Cal Poly.
“I look forward to recreating it into something snazzier,” said Tompkins.
Included in the plans are a grocery store similar to Whole Foods, a restaurant, a pharmacy and café that will possibly have an outdoor dining area.