Downtown Atascadero was once an armless dead man. But that’s finally changing

Don’t look now, but after some fits and starts, the most underappreciated downtown in San Luis Obispo County is finally making meaningful progress toward becoming a bona fide destination.

If you haven’t visited Atascadero lately, great things are afoot. It’s taken a long time to get here and there’s still a ways to go, but you can see how the puzzle is coming together.

In the span of a few recent weeks, a few critical and visible pieces fell into place.

In late March, the Colony Market & Deli opened at the corner of Traffic Way and El Camino Real, turning an obsolete former service station into one of the savvier building repurposings you’ll see.

Without leveling the structure or doing a big add-on, Joanna and Shane Wemple converted a space used to fix cars into one designed to serve gourmet sandwiches and beer. The two roll-up doors create a welcoming indoor-outdoor eatery, and the four picnic tables are almost always full.

Colony Market and Deli opened on El Camino Real and Traffic Way on Friday, March, 29, 2019. Patrick Ibarra

Suddenly, there is life on the corner.

A short way down El Camino Real, the most ambitious upgrade to the area has broken ground, and dirt is being pushed around at the site of the future mixed-use La Plaza development, which will bring a combination of dining and retail to the bottom floor with residential above.

The Zappas family’s project promises to be a game-changer for downtown, bringing the kind of regular foot traffic you can only get when people live, work and shop in the same close-knit area.

Finally, in early April, Paul and Lakhena Say reopened their popular Malilbu Brew coffeehouse at their new spot on East Mall in a pioneering move that makes them the first dining establishment to take over existing space on Sunken Gardens since Sylvester’s opened in 2008.

This is a big deal, because for the first time in a decade, we have seen a chink in the armor of land-use misuse on East Mall and West Mall, the two streets flanking Atascadero’s signature park.

For the first time, a business that will bring pedestrian traffic to the area seven days a week has taken up residence in a district long only known as a haven for dentists and doctors.

Co-owner Lakhena Say helps a customer at Malibu Brew Coffee’s new location. The Atascadero coffeehouse reopened on East Mall following a two-month closure. The business moved across the street to make room for the La Plaza mixed-use development on El Camino Real. Joe Johnston

Here’s what can happen when docs outnumber fun places — like coffee shops and burger bars and gift stores — in a downtown:

A couple weeks ago, North County reporter Lindsey Holden and I were working out of A-town for a day, and after lunch at Sylvester’s, we strolled up West Mall to City Hall to track down Deputy City Manager Terrie Banish.

It wasn’t even 2 p.m. on a Friday, and from Sylvester’s bright yellow corner building (now accented with the Kuma food truck) to Palma Avenue, not a business was open except for the Dignity Health doctor’s office.

One after another ... dark.

That means zero impact on tourism, zero source of attraction for passersby, zero contribution to downtown vitality — for a full 68 hours, from 1 p.m. Friday to 9 a.m. Monday.

That’s worse than banker’s hours — and more out of place for the location than even a bank would be.

But don’t get me started on the dentists.

The reason we were looking for Banish was to hear about the city’s community forums on its proposal to narrow El Camino Real from Highway 41 to Rosario Avenue.

Atascadero’s first plan to narrow El Camino Real, which would reduce the road to two lanes for the entire downtown stretch. It also includes short turn lanes near Sunken Gardens. City of Atascadero

In Atascadero’s handsome domed council chambers, which is unmatched anywhere in the county, she and public works director Nick DeBar showed us the three current options the city is considering as a way to convert a road that used to be a highway into the true downtown artery it needs to be.

I am all in on this plan, the more aggressive, the better.

The best option is the one that reduces ECR to a single lane in either direction for the entire stretch, with cut-ins for turn lanes and lots of pretty medians that are home to angled parking and landscaping.

Slow the flow and make accessing shops and restaurants easy, and a lot of those people now driving by from somewhere to somewhere else will begin stopping here.

They will get out of their cars, walk and spend money, infusing energy into the city core.

In fact, describing the area’s critical roads as arteries truly is appropriate in this case.

Up until recently, Sunken Gardens was a dead man with his arms cut off, the busy head of City Hall atop the beating heart of the park with two useless streets and nowhere for the blood to go.

But that’s changing, and visionary leaders from within the city administration and throughout the community are working to make it happen.

More new businesses have opened, like Pho 4 U and Dead Oak Brewing on Entrada. Others are on the way, like Dunbar Brewing moving from Santa Margarita to the old home of Camozzi’s Saloon one block up from the Carlton Hotel.

What they need now is your support.

Don’t be a naysayer on the evolution of El Camino Real. If you’re a citizen, embrace the change and support downtown. If you’re a dentist, finally start looking for a new office somewhere else.

Be a part of the rejuvenation effort that can give Atascadero the life and breath that’s been missing for so long.

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Joe Tarica is the editor of The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. He’s worked in various newsroom roles since 1993, including as an award-winning copy editor, designer and writer of the Joetopia column. A California native, he has been a resident of San Luis Obispo County for more than three decades and is a Cal Poly graduate.