It’s getting hairy in downtown San Luis Obispo

Downtown San Luis Obispo.
Downtown San Luis Obispo. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Fill in the blank: Downtown San Luis Obispo has too many _____.

(A) Bars

(B) Coffee shops

(C) Hair salons

(D) All of the above

(E) None of the above

The answer, of course, depends. If you’re a member of Save Our Downtown, which believes San Luis Obispo has way too many watering holes, you’ll pick A. If pub crawling sounds like a great way to spend a Friday night, you won’t.

In other words, there is no right or wrong answer, but there are plenty of opinions.

Here’s ours: We believe downtown is closer to being over-saloned than over-salooned.

We counted 13 — soon to be 14 — hair salons in the downtown core alone. In case you’re wondering, there were two barbershops in the same area. Several of the hair salons are small and tucked away, but in a few cases, we’re talking salon/spas with major square footage in prime locations.

In some instances, salons have replaced retail stores. For example, a salon/spa is moving into the Higuera Street space formerly occupied by Coverings, a women’s clothing store.

Although a thriving hair salon is much better than an empty store front, we’ve got to ask: Are there really that many customers in the market for shampoos and blowouts?

Once, yogurt shops were the trend. Now, hair salons and spas are multiplying in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Similar questions have been raised before, in connection with other businesses — most recently when Williams-Sonoma opened across the street from Forden’s last year. Before that, there were concerns that downtown had an over abundance of yogurt shops and — long, long ago — bookstores. And there’s a perennial concern that national chains are overtaking independent retail businesses.

Hair salons, though, are a different breed. They come under the umbrella of personal service businesses because they offer, well, personal services, often by appointment only.

There’s no doubt they draw customers downtown — clients who may go out to lunch or shop for shoes after they get their hair cut. But hair salons don’t bring in the sales taxes that, say, a furniture store or an upscale boutique or a shoe store generates. And no matter how aesthetically pleasing they may be on the inside, visitors aren’t likely to beat a path to beauty salons.

Some cities have tried regulating personal service businesses in their downtowns through zoning regulations, with varying results.

Evanston, Illinois, twice attempted to limit the number of nail salons and beauty shops on a particular street, first by requiring existing businesses to apply for permits and, after that failed, by requiring a 500-foot separation between existing businesses and new ones. That, too, went down in flames after the city’s Chamber of Commerce trashed the plan.

Dominic Tartaglia, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, says it’s dangerous to start prescribing zoning mixes in a downtown. Better to let market forces determine the mix.

He also points out that downtown San Luis Obispo offers a lifestyle that goes beyond retail shopping. Downtown offers experiences, and it’s not just hair salons, restaurants and wine bars in on the act; some retail stores offer yoga lessons, cooking classes, art exhibits, lectures and workshops.

He makes some good points.

This is America, after all. Nobody gets to dictate who can hang up a shingle (unless it happens to be a marijuana dispensary, a strip club or an adult bookstore). And, yes, our economy operates on a sink-or-swim principle. If investors want to open a beauty salon or a restaurant or an art gallery, it’s up to them to weigh the risks versus the rewards.

Still, we believe a healthy mix of businesses is critical to the success of any commercial district, and by extension, also critical to the economic security of local governments highly dependent on sales tax revenue.

We aren’t suggesting the city of San Luis Obispo cap the number of hair salons or coffee shops downtown or impose a requirement that mandates a minimum distance between similar businesses. But if downtown is offering a lifestyle, we offer this observation: Variety is the spice of life (style).

For what it’s worth, we have plenty of places where we can sip lattes and get our hair styled. We have candy stores, jewelry shops, a cheese shop, wine bars, a big record store (are they still called record stores?), a couple of surf shops, and we’re about to get a bowling alley.

We could use a full-service bakery. Another deli — a place to pick up an apple and a sandwich for lunch and a tub of lasagna for dinner — would be nice. And an old-school piano bar, sort of like the one in “La La Land,” would be the perfect place to hang out after a haircut and a yoga lesson.

But if Save Our Downtown asks, that idea didn’t come from us.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune