For over 12 years, Save Our Downtown SLO has been actively engaged in the preservation of the unique qualities that create a vibrant downtown. We are delighted the City Council has selected downtown vitality as one of its top five funding priorities for the next two years. And we are delighted the March 1, 2019, Tribune opinion piece is urging the city to take a more proactive role in enhancing the retail intensity and continuity of our downtown, with an emphasis on walkability.
In the 1960s, developers and designers who understood the essential ingredients of a successful retail space developed the shopping mall. This was the first evolution of experiential shopping where the environment offered, in addition to shops, art, landscape, background music, olfactory experiences and entertainment.
If there was too much entertainment and not enough shopping in the right proportion and configuration, the retail died. If there was too much distance traveled to reach the anchor stores, then the anchor stores died.
Our dilemma in downtown San Luis Obispo is that we are erring on the side of too much bar-related entertainment combined with long, tedious walks from parking garages to shops. As The Tribune stated, the intensity of the retail experience is becoming diluted by the introduction of look-alike chain stores, yogurt shops, hair salons, alcohol outlets and non-retail office space.
Moving back in time from the 20th century shopping mall, we could also learn from the enduring success of Middle Eastern markets or bazaars where retail intensity is enhanced through the introduction of farm-to-table foods and locally produced artisanal products as part of the retail experience. These are essentially mini-stores that allow consumers to experience a wide and unique selection of products and services.
Why have we not replicated these successful retail models?
Because, as The Tribune accurately reports, the city has chosen to take the laissez-faire, survival- of-the-fittest approach. The city’s Economic Strategic Plan gives lip service to encouraging downtown “resident-serving businesses without limiting the ability of building owners to choose tenants.”
However, the plan’s primary focus is on the development of more office parks in the city’s expansion areas. What are the solutions to all of this? A list of solutions includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- Take a more proactive role, focusing on the needs of our city’s permanent residents, by limiting the concentration of personal service businesses, alcohol outlets and chain stores in our downtown core and by promoting a greater variety of locally owned and locally sourced goods and services
- Reinstate a city-sponsored contract using experienced marketing experts to promote downtown shopping and business development.
- Convince building owners to provide retail spaces that are easier to subdivide, which will also help to lower rents.
- Provide kiosks within the parking garages that would advertise and describe the location of downtown shops (particularly side-street shops).
- Encourage businesses having difficulty paying their rents to move to the less expensive side-street location.
- Encourage the city to provide start-up businesses with six-month front-end cost waivers.
- Encourage the small business owner to “steal” ideas from the national chain stores.
- Small business owners should endeavor to uniquely link their stores to the natural environment and to the unique history of downtown.
- There should be a system of “magnets” drawing visitors to walk past small downtown shops (i.e. anchor stores/department stores and major art installations).
- Repair sidewalks and coordinate sidewalk repair schedules with the local merchants.
- Promote special free-parking shopping days.
- Reduce parking penalties or keep credit card time limits open-ended.
These are things our mayor, Heidi Harmon, and council could do if they were really serious about supporting local businesses.
Finally, there should be some attention given to the fact that the city should not be approving four-to-seven story buildings downtown, particularly tall buildings without adequate parking and without adequate consideration for preservation of views and sunlight.
And from the perspective of climate change, buildings over four stories are environmentally unsustainable., since most buildings that generate their own energy do it with solar panels. Assuming a multi-story building has only its roof available for mounting solar panels, a single-story building is much more likely to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
David Brodie of San Luis Obispo is a professor emeritus who taught at UC Berkeley and Cal Poly for over 45 years. Allan Cooper, also of San Luis Obispo, is a licensed architect, member of the AIA and a professor emeritus who taught at Cal Poly for over 34 years. Both have practiced in the fields of urban planning and architecture, and are founding members of Save Our Downtown.