For the good of Atascadero, doctors and dentists need to leave downtown

The entry to Centennial Plaza frames Atascadero City Hall in background.
The entry to Centennial Plaza frames Atascadero City Hall in background.

I appreciate what Atascadero is trying to do to remake its downtown, but this latest effort to discourage medical offices from the core area simply does not go far enough.

This opinion is probably why I’m not on the city payroll, because I would have a hard time being as gentle as community development director Phil Dunsmore was at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, where the panel advanced a plan to finally begin formalizing land-use policies that aim to get a better mix of restaurant and retail uses downtown.

“Those offices are in a great place,” Dunsmore said. “… It’s not saying we want them to go away.”

In Joetopia, that’s exactly what would be happening.

Those offices are in a great place, just not in a great place for offices. And I absolutely do want them to go away, like out on Morro Road or down El Camino Real somewhere.

Maybe someone could develop a new strip mall for them on the old Walmart property on Del Rio, because Walmart certainly isn’t using it.

I get that this is a delicate process for the city. It’s trying to unwind decades of misguided urban planning.

Rules should have been in place years ago to prevent Atascadero’s most important city space from becoming a glorified medical plaza.

A map showing the downtown Atascadero area that would be subject to new zoning restrictions. Ground-floor residential uses would be prohibited in this area, and new medical offices would require a public hearing. City of Atascadero

I’m pretty sure when E.G. Lewis was pondering his idea for a Utopian community, it wasn’t built around the premise of popping down to City Hall for a teeth cleaning.

If you haven’t taken a stroll around Sunken Gardens, that’s what it is now — just one dental or doctor’s office after another, save for the random bank or insurance agent.

None of these uses makes me want to go downtown and spend time.

Not that you’d know that from listening to the doctors and dentists.

“When patients come to our offices, they do not just bring their troubles and leave with a new perspective,” said psychologist Laurie Ferguson, who has an office nearby on Entrada. “They also bring their cash to spend at local retailers, restaurants and salons.”

OK, that may happen a bit, but not nearly to the extent you need in a thriving downtown core.

Ferguson is one person, likely meeting with patients in ones and twos, plus some families. She has up to four professionals operating in her building at any one time and probably during daytime hours. All of this puts a hard cap on just how much traffic she can draw.

The businesses Atascadero needs downtown are restaurants, ice cream parlors, bars, boutiques — basically, establishments that can draw in 10, 20, 30 people at a time and constantly turn them over, circulating them throughout the area.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you have a business that runs by appointments, you should not be downtown. If you somehow are downtown, no way should you be on the ground floor.

At Tuesday’s meeting, some of the commissioners worried like me that the proposed zoning changes didn’t go far enough.

As is, the rules would require new ground-floor office owners in the designated downtown area to go through a public-hearing process, and would prohibit residences on ground floors. They would also remove some existing parking incentives.

What they don’t prevent is one existing doctor from selling his practice to another, thus perpetuating the under-use of the property for potentially decades to come.

atascadero bridge
A rendering of the recently completed Centennial Plaza shows how the area alond Atascadero Creek has been improved with a new pedestrian bridge and walking paths. City of Atascadero

I want more than that — and faster. Why can’t the city come up with incentives to get them to relocate? I would literally pay them with local tax dollars to get them to go.

Just up the road, Paso Robles officials are getting creative in an effort to preserve the River Lodge Motel near Target, working on a land swap that could, at least temporarily, make the city owner of the property.

Also, think about the public-private partnerships that have been formed to build stadiums in big U.S. cities. Governments have teamed up with far richer landowners than these in Atascadero to create something for the public good. Trying to get a few dentist offices to relocate is a far simpler endeavor.

But it’s not all on the city to lead this change. I’m waiting for the day when one of these business owners along Sunken Gardens finds a buyer who will convert the building to a restaurant.

Come on, you guys. Make a difference. Be the first building block of a new future. If we get one of those spots near the new Centennial Plaza along the creek to convert to a nice cafe with patio seating, maybe that starts a domino effect.

Atascadero can be so much more, but it’s going to take cooperation — and a little sacrifice from certain parties — for the city to reach its potential.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica

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