Is our downtown on the brink of being destroyed, or is it about to gain a new crowning jewel? That seems to be the either/or dilemma at the heart of a brewing fight between public advocacy group Save Our Downtown and SLO Brew owners Todd Newman and Hamish Marshall, who plan to move SLO Brew from its current location to a larger space a block away on Higuera Street. The shift would happen by 2015.
- RENDERINGS COURTESY OF SLO BREW AND BRACKET ARCHITECTURE OFFICE
- CREEK WALK : The new SLO Brew would have dining opening up onto the creek walk, similar to Creeky Tiki and Novo. An external staircase will bring patrons to the second floor nightclub and rooftop dining area.
When the Garden Street Terrace project breaks ground, SLO Brew will have to go—one way or another—and if the city doesn’t allow it to move into the Carrisa building, which is owned by Newman and Marshall, it’s very likely the business, which has been a part of downtown for 25 years, may close for good. Likewise, if the City Council imposes even more conditions on the project to the point of making it economically unviable, it will be gone forever.
For some citizens who think there are already too many alcohol-serving establishments downtown, that may be music to their ears, but for fans of the nightclub, restaurant, and microbrewery—not to mention downtown business owners who believe SLO Brew is an important draw to downtown—the loss of the venue would be devastating.
It comes down to this: Do you think SLO Brew is good for downtown? Or bad?
“If the City Council along with the Planning Commission passes this request, SLO will turn into Pottersville,” Save Our Downtown member and Cal Poly Architecture Professor Emeritus Sandra Lakeman ominously warned the City Council during its Sept. 25 meeting. “You may remember It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart was all that stood between quaint Bedford Falls and Lionel Barrymore’s Pottersville, full of sleazy bars and drunks. We’re on our way.”
In letters read and speeches made before the City Council, Lakeman and her citizens’ group have predicted dire consequences for downtown and the surrounding area, worrying about increased sexual assaults along the creek, beer bottles thrown off the rooftop restaurant, noise problems, and herds of drunken hooligans streaming into the downtown area at 2 a.m.
For their part, Newman and Marshall find these predictions absurd. They believe the relocated business and the patrons it will bring to the creek area will make the area safer. They note that SLO Brew currently has an 11-foot-wide bay door on its alley, and no one throws bottles from it, so why would they throw them from a rooftop restaurant? They also hired acoustic specialist David Lord to design measures to control sound from the nightclub.
Though San Luis Obispo Chief of Police Steve Gesell declined to comment on the relocation, as plans continue to be revised and discussions with the city are ongoing, SLOPD Cpt. Chris Staley testified before the council that activity at the new location could even cut down on illegal activities around the creek. He believes having the venue on Higuera Street will make policing the area easier, not more difficult.
Following a unanimous approval from the city’s planning commission in July, the City Council heard Save Our Downtown’s case against the project on Sept. 25. The project at that point included a street-level restaurant and brewery on the first floor, offices and a roughly 3,000-square-foot concert auditorium on the second, and a 1,000-square-foot rooftop patio bar. Those plans have since changed significantly.
As for Save Our Downtown, if they couldn’t squelch the move entirely, they at least want to see it scaled down. Lakeman and her group are most concerned about the scale of the project.
- HIGUERA STREET : A glass transom will greet patrons on Higuera Street, with family friendly dining and an expanded microbrewery.
“We want to help make things fit and be better for the town,” Lakeman said. “We don’t want to see the creek lit up like a supermarket parking lot.”
Currently, at full capacity, SLO Brew’s Garden Street location can hold 741 people on its two floors. The 4,000-square-foot-larger proposed location on Higuera originally asked for an occupancy of 1,221 total on its three floors: 476 on the street-level restaurant, bar, and microbrew; 600 on the second floor nightclub; and 50 for the rooftop dining area. Since the last meeting, Newman and Marshall have scaled back the occupancy to 887, or 338 on the ground floor, 499 in the nightclub, and 50 on the roof.
They originally requested that concertgoers enter from the creek side across the two existing bridges, but Newman and Marshall have now agreed to have patrons line up on Higuera Street.
“SLO Brew followed every rule, pursued and allowed use for the new location, and achieved a 7-0 planning commission approval for the project after accepting 36 new conditions to its use permit,” Newman said. “Why should that not be enough? We’re a storied 25-year-old establishment. It seems ‘Save our Downtown’ would include one of the longest-standing businesses. The city’s general plan calls for a 24/7 downtown. I would think SLO Brew fits into this. We’re also one of the larger downtown employers with more than 60 employees. How many business are expanding or willing to invest in expansion in this market?”
Newman also noted that many of the rumors about the project are simply untrue. Its nightclub would not have a bigger occupancy that The Graduate, and “nothing was done behind anyone's back,” he said. “Letters were sent out, public outreach was conducted, hearings were public. SOD continually asserts that there are too many liquor outlets downtown. We are not a new liquor outlet; we are one of the oldest. We’re an existing business that was established within the city's use guidelines and approved. Should we be punished for success?”
Newman also asserts that the activity surrounding SLO Brew is typical of other downtowns: “What downtown have you ever visited where there was not an active nightlife? Downtown dwellers are drawn to this climate ... and who decides to live in a downtown that does not evaluate the environment?”
Finally, he believes the larger location and its amenities will allow the venue to draw higher-caliber performers: “The new location features a significantly expanded brew house, and the kitchen is 150 percent larger. The Green Room is over 500 square feet, with a kitchen and shower to highlight artists’ SLO Town experience.”
- COME INSIDE : The interior will feature design elements similar to SLO Brew’s current location.
Furthermore, Marshall contends that the new location is consistent with the city’s general plan, which specifically calls for venues that attract art and culture. Marshall told New Times that since the Sept. 25 council meeting, he and Newman have submitted a new project report to the city’s community development department, and he remains in close contact with city staff.
Since the council members outlined their concerns about the project—which included the scale of the venue, the queuing of lines behind the building to the creek, hours of operation and alcohol service, as well as use of the rooftop—Marshall said it’s naturally been scaled back, and that he believes the council will “be fairly pleased” with the new project.
Though the new report won’t be made public until roughly a week before the Nov. 20 council meeting, Marshall tipped New Times off to a few of the changes. Aside from trimming the requested occupancy of the building—which is dictated by zoning code—Marshall and Newman changed plans to line concert-goers through the back of the building over the creek. Instead, the line will wind out the front door to Higuera Street, on the opposite side from Frog & Peach Pub, to avoid congestion between the two establishments.
Regarding the bands’ buses and loading and unloading for concerts, the jury is still out on exactly where those buses are supposed to park, but Marshall said two or three options are currently being discussed with the city’s parking authority.
“We do know where we can’t park the buses,” Marshall said.
Inevitably, the biggest obstacle for the applicants will be overcoming the council’s concerns about the third-floor rooftop patio. One of the conditions added to the project by the council, namely Mayor Jan Marx, was the complete elimination of the rooftop idea. That doesn’t bode well with the owners, nor with supporters of the project who argue that the idea is a natural draw, given the location next to the creek.
According to Marshall, much like the rest of the project, the roughly 1,000-foot rooftop patio has been scaled back significantly, now proposed to be a small restaurant space, sans a bar. Whether the idea survives the council remains to be seen.
All the modifications aside, the operation’s use permit dictates that the business will be subject to a review 12 months following its grand opening.
Aside from Lakeman and her group, many local businesses seem amenable to the move. Richard Stephens of Garden Street Goldsmiths, which is directly across from SLO Brew’s current location, has been a neighbor of SLO Brew its entire 25-year history, watching it open in 1987 as an upstairs microbrew and restaurant, morph into an upstairs nightclub, and expand to both floors in 2001.
It has, at times, been a contentious relationship. Every one of his windows and one of his glass doors has been broken over the years, mainly due to fights on the street. Buses carrying bands have parked for extended times on Garden Street, blocking traffic. A couple times a month people leave “messes” in front of his business. But Stephens is the first to note that there’s no evidence that SLO Brew patrons have been responsible for all these troubles. He believes the high concentration of bars is an ongoing concern to the downtown shop owners.
- A ROOF WITH A VIEW : The most contentious feature of the new plan is a small rooftop dining area that will hold 49 patrons.
“If I could wave a wand and drop two or three of these alcohol venues from the downtown area, I would,” he said.
As for SLO Brew itself, things have gotten better in recent years.
“Its low point was just before [original owners] Mike and Becky [Hoffman] sold it to Todd and Korie [Newman],” Stephens said. “When Todd and Korie came in, they did a lot of remodeling and cleaning up, and certainly the spirit and energy of the business improved. But I don’t think they initially understood the clashes SLO Brew had had with local businesses. To their credit, as issues came up, they handled them.”
Stephens believes the move to Higuera Street is the right one, noting that the three-lane one-way street will make it easy to load and unload artists’ buses. He also examined Newman and Marshall’s proposal for the move, calling it “one of the best-planned proposals I’ve seen.”
He also applauded one of the most contentious parts of the new plan, the rooftop dining: “I think that’s one of the best parts of it. It’s more in line with the scale of the town. I think high-end growth is inevitable in this town. SLO Brew is a regionally noted venue right now, and if they can figure out how to make [the new location] fit, it will be good for the town.”
Mike White, owner of Boo Boo Records, has nothing but praise for the plan, and even took the time to go speak before the City Council during the last meeting.
“I’m totally for it,” he said. “It’s such an important venue and raises our downtown heads and shoulders above other downtowns in this state. I’m particularly supportive because Todd Newman is such a community-minded person. He’s not just some out-of-town developer. And SLO Brew brings more traffic downtown than any other business. When people come out for a show, they shop, and they eat out. SLO Brew adds so much vitality to our town.”
In tough economic times, it’s rare to find owners of businesses in such a small community coming out in support of a competing establishment. But even other club owners praise SLO Brew for serving as a cultural hub, attracting out-of-town music and brew lovers, and just being overall good neighbors.
Bill Hales, co-owner of ASH Management, which operates a number of restaurants and bars in the downtown area—including Frog and Peach, another music-oriented nightclub—said the venue has done much to attract patrons downtown.
“Nobody does music at the scale they do, without a doubt,” Hales told New Times. “I think they’re good operators, and they’ve done a lot to promote good synergy among the downtown businesses. I definitely want to keep that going.”
Hales added that Newman and Marshall have been fundamental in establishing the Safe Nightlife Association, a committee of late-night establishment owners and operators who have been revamping their policies in light of concerns made clear by residents and city council members involving alcohol-related incidents.
Since the very beginning, Hales said, Marshall and Newman have sat on the committee and brought new ideas to the table as far as improving safe and responsible business practices, including extra employee training, a very visible ad campaign warning against bad behavior, and a new “One 86—All 86” policy, which encourages bar owners to work together. Under the policy, if a patron is asked to leave the establishment, other participating bars in the city are notified and asked not to serve the individual. And according to former San Luis Obispo Police Department lieutenant Steve Tolley—who now serves as consultant to the Safe Nightlife Association—the new policies have already proven effective.
“Hamish [Marshall] has been there from day one. In fact, he was part of the original group before I was even brought aboard,” Tolley said. “Safety is definitely at the forefront of his mind.”
Andrea Miller, owner of Spike’s Pub and current chair of the Safe Nightlife Association, told New Times it was Marshall who first proposed the ad campaign, as well as initiated the SLO Safe Ride service, the popular shuttle that provides an alternative to often-hard-to-get taxi cabs.
Neighboring business owners have also come out in support of the project, and the fact that the new establishment will be host to a line from the front door out to Higuera Street during music events doesn’t seem to bother its soon-to-be neighbors.
“It’s not like it’s going to bring this whole group of ruffians to the downtown. It’s already an established downtown venue,” said Aaron Gomez, owner of the Gold Concept jewelry store, which is directly next door to SLO Brew’s proposed location on Higuera Street. “If it were just another bar, I definitely would be opposed to it next door, but it’s modern and it’s bringing something to the downtown that I believe will benefit everybody.”
Gomez pointed out that it’s not necessarily retailers who bring people to SLO from out of town, but restaurants and entertainment. He also argued that with unemployment being what it is, SLO Brew has the largest staff of any downtown establishment.
“People want to say [SLO Brew] only caters to college kids, but that really just isn’t the case,” said Deborah Cash, president of the Downtown Association, who added that SLO Brew has “raised the bar” for downtown music venues. “Over the past 25 years, SLO Brew has been a mixed bag as far as different management styles, but since [Newman] and [Marshall] have been there, it has been very well-managed. I think it’s found its niche.”
Cash also pointed out that the new location will complete a much-needed segment on the 700 block of Higuera, closing a crucial gap at the creek side. Currently, Novo and Frog and Peach Pub—which back up to the creek—are separated from the neighboring Network, and opening SLO Brew would provide additional lighting and patronage of the currently dark and somewhat secluded creek.
The project even has the support of the City Council. Mayor Jan Marx told New Times that while she doesn’t necessarily attend shows there, it’s been a major boon to the community—one she wants to see continue.
“It’s been very important to the cultural scene,” Marx said. “It’s not a question of whether it will go away.”
“Especially in these hard economic times, here you have a thriving small business,” Marshall said. “Don’t restrict it—don’t starve it of air.”
The next City Council meeting at which the SLO Brew move will be discussed is Tuesday, Nov. 20. For their part, Newman and Marshall plan to fight for the rooftop dining to remain, as well as fight to keep the staircase attached to the back of the building instead of being contained within its footprint. Whether SLO Brew continues to exist is open to debate.
All interested parties are encouraged to attend.
Glen Starkey and Matt Fountain are New Times staff writers. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.