- IMAGE BY HEATHER WALTER
‘Disneyland’ explained: A goal to make downtown San Luis Obispo beautiful
Over many years the city has made wonderful progress in improving the appearance of downtown. This includes placing overhead lines underground, planting trees, replacing poor sidewalks, controlling private signs, renewing underground utilities, reducing flooding, and recently repaving the streets and installing a few decorative new street lights.
The seismic retrofit program has not only improved the safety of buildings but has encouraged owners to upgrade and improve their appearance. Our renewed museums, the Mission, Mission Plaza, and many new stores make downtown a great place to visit and shop.
Downtown needs only a modest effort to make it one of the most attractive in California, or anywhere else for that matter. I am referring to the refurbishment and renewal of downtown public street furnishings. During the recent mayor’s campaign and at City Council goal-setting sessions, I presented the following concept and outline of a work program:
The city should a) re-examine and update its downtown design manual within the next year, and b) embark on a program to repair, replace, renew and improve as needed, every street light, street sign, support pole, tree well, news rack, trash container, directional sign and sidewalk, starting in the streets utilized for Farmers Market. We should embark on a program to keep these streets and sidewalks spotlessly clean and in excellent repair. We should consider adding decorative tree lighting, tasteful directional signs to points of interest, flower baskets, and other amenities to make it a special pleasure just to be downtown.
I recently remarked to a reporter that the reason Disneyland’s Main Street gives visitors such a special feeling is the careful and comprehensive design and the exceptional maintenance effort made to keep it outstanding. We would do well following that approach.
Even in these hard times, I don’t view meeting this goal as an expenditure but consider it an investment in our future. It is easily within our grasp to make downtown the “Crown Jewel” of California cities. I hope the community will agree, and I encourage us to start right away, so in a few short years we can say: “I live in beautiful SLOTOWN, the envy of every other city in California.”
Dave Romero has been San Luis Obispo’s mayor since 2002.
Disneyland is fake; embrace what’s real
We are all familiar with “theme parks,” such as Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain as well as their spin-offs, sometimes called “theme towns,” i.e., Solvang, Las Vegas, and (albeit on a more sophisticated level) Santa Barbara. Believe it or not, San Luis Obispoans are now wrestling with whether they too want to live in a “pretend” city full of fabricated history as is often represented through the creation of a cute pastiche of outmoded, post-modern (quasihistorical) buildings.
There are some in this community (I count myself among them) who enjoy architecture on multiple levels. We are not merely satisfied with “eye candy” or “stage set” architecture (if in fact this can even be called “architecture”). Our appreciation of the buildings around us derives from an understanding of the cultural, economic, and social mores that, in the past, have shaped these buildings and, in turn, have shaped us. Don’t be mistaken … few of us are opposed to the introduction into our community of buildings that exemplify 21st century values.
Of course, we want buildings that are sustainable, buildings that will reinforce, rather than repudiate, the community values of San Luis Obispo. But we understand that San Luis Obispo is somewhat unique because it still maintains an inventory of buildings that represent an uninterrupted flow of history—a somewhat unexpurgated “story” documenting a community’s highest achievements as well as its most appalling failures. I say “somewhat unexpurgated” because in the mid-1950s, the “big brother” tendencies of those who would sanitize or rewrite history authorized the demolition of a unique and treasured ethnic “ghetto,” otherwise known as “Chinatown.”
Those of us who are seeking reality—rather than escaping it—would also appreciate that the humble “folk” Victorians (most of which have been demolished) built in the 1890s better represented the ethos of 19th century San Luis Obispo than the opulent Queen Anne houses along Buchon Street. Of course, there is a time and place for escapism. But if escapism becomes our mantra as a community, or even as a society, what kind of appalling story will be told about us? ∆
Allan Cooper is a Cal Poly professor emeritus of architecture and a member of the group Save Our Downtown.