SLO’s plan to rehab Mission Plaza fails to ‘rock the boat’

A monument in downtown San Luis Obispo acknowledges the key role former Mayor Kenneth Schwartz played in establishing Mission Plaza.
A monument in downtown San Luis Obispo acknowledges the key role former Mayor Kenneth Schwartz played in establishing Mission Plaza. sfinucane@thetribunenews.com

As you might suspect, Mission Plaza is rather close to my heart.

Mission Plaza did not have an easy birth, but I am pleased that over time it has become an important part of San Luis Obispo life, providing breathing room for our mission and congregation space in our central business district. It has been well used.

Renovations are certainly in order, and modifications to the plaza’s physical condition to bring it into conformity with the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are warranted. However, the specification established by the previous City Council in seeking professional design assistance to remedy the plaza’s current short-comings, as well as to provide a vision for the future, were very, very disappointing, to say the least.

Daniel Burnham, a late 19th century American architect-planner once advised that we should, “Make no little plans, for they fail to stir the magic in men’s blood.”

The RRM plan before the City Council is, unfortunately, a “little plan” in too many aspects.

Sadly, I must urge rejection of this plan, save for the circular plaza revision directly in front of the mission itself. I urge the council to reject all of the elements proposed west of the Warden Bridge, including revisions of the restroom area and the landscape and pavement treatment of Broad Street, between Palm Street and Monterey Street. The footbridge proposed behind Luna Red should not be a part of this plan. If needed in the future, it should be constructed by the businesses it would serve, not with public funds.

Why reject? In my opinion, the RRM proposal fails to asses (1) what needs to be done to keep downtown SLO both economically and socially vibrant for at least the next 25 years, and (2) what role the Mission Plaza (and its extensions) could play in that future.

Also, this plan fails to generate any excitement, nor does it address any potential economic problems that might loom in the future. Was RRM too timid and didn’t want to “rock the boat?”

I, too, am a design professional (retired), and in my experienced opinion, it is the duty of design professionals to “rock the boat.” The next few years are destined to be critical for our downtown and for retail businesses. SLO needs a plan that will excite its citizens and visitors, as well as contribute to the economic and social well being of SLO in the years ahead.

The seeds that will produce that vision of the future role of Mission Plaza, extended and embellished, have already been planted. They are already in their infancy and soon will be flourishing. They are: The Art Museum, The Children’s Museum, The History Museum, The Little Theater and The Old Mission’s Museum, with the mission itself. Together. they constitute a new Cultural Center tied together with a well-considered Mission Plaza-like landscaped circulation system.

This is the vision I ask you to consider. Without question, any future design work approvals must consider Mission Plaza extended to Nipomo Street.

I do ask and urge the council to carefully consider the design ideas for this area that have been developed independently by former Councilman T. Keith Gurnee, who is himself a professional urban planner. Keith’s designs offer much to be considered, for he stepped outside of the design constraints imposed by the previous City Council and has “rocked the boat.”

I bear RRM no ill will. It is a capable design firm. It has done better on other projects, and might have done better with this commission had the city’s solicitation for professional design services been more expansive and futuristic in its scope.

I urge City Council members to salvage and use that of RRM’s proposed design that will “work” for our future, and disregard all other aspects of the RRM proposal.

My reason is simple: Economics!

Historically, the financial base of California cities came from property taxes, but in 1978 Californians overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13. That put a hard limit on how much tax could be levied on real property. This limitation flew in the face of an expanding population that required expanded public services.

What to do? SLO voters agreed to a half-cent increase in the local sales tax rate; this increase continues today but has a sunset date, which would require a positive repeat vote by SLO voters for the half-cent levy to continue.

The half-cent sales tax increase might have stabilized SLO's revenue needs for an indefinite period. But, no, along came Amazon and cities, SLO included, began to witness closures of "brick and mortar" retail stores—stores whose retail sales tax was the life blood for local governments, including our own.

What might SLO do to stabilize its retail base? (RRM makes no suggestions.)

The Cultural Center that I propose could become a draw to bring new visitors to SLO. New visitors bring new money with them. The close physical relationships the elements of the Cultural Center have with each other within an extended Mission Plaza and the entire Cultural Center with the adjacent central business district suggest a very positive synergistic relationship could come into being.

The result of this interactive relationship should be more economic activity and more sales tax revenue for SLO, as well as sheer delight in an expanded, more exciting downtown.

Ken Schwartz, an architect and former mayor of San Luis Obispo, is widely regarded as the Father of Mission Plaza.