In the neighborhood known as upper Monterey—or uptown—the sidewalk seems to have more cracks than it does elsewhere in San Luis Obispo. The stores are quirky and unique. The area feels like a haven for the individual entrepreneurial dream in action. Though there’s no formal definition of what uptown is and exactly where it starts or ends, the locale that identifies itself as such stretches along Monterey Street north of Santa Rosa Street and west of the freeway—but there are no strict boundaries and everyone seems to have a different opinion.
In the last six months, there’s been an effort to promote and brand the uptown neighborhood and expose it to the outside world.
But there’s no widely accepted template to promote a neighborhood in SLO. What works for downtown businesses isn’t an easy sell to people in other areas of the city.
The attempt to sell uptown has met mixed results. Some locals want a formal effort dedicated to promoting the area, while others say the endeavor is too much too soon. At the same time, another neighborhood in the city’s Railroad District seems content to rest on its laurels and evolve at a more organic pace.
Uptown already has something going for it: a built-in audience.
The land surrounding the north part of Monterey Street holds some of the most important financial cash cows of the city: a large herd of hotels. Every visitor to San Luis Obispo pays a hotel tax (called, somewhat confusingly, a transient occupancy tax), and that money is a godsend to the cash-strapped city government. The hotel tax is the city’s first pass at the vital tourist dollar, and many of the tourists who pay those taxes head straight for downtown via Monterey Street.
When tourists skip the stretch between the hotels and downtown, they miss out on some of the last commercial elements of an older SLO, free of box and brand-name stores. The feel of the city changes dramatically as Monterey Street transitions into downtown.
One of the most quirky and unique uptown businesses is a decidedly artistic endeavor that’s evolved into a bedrock of the area. Peter Steynberg runs his eponymous gallery in a 1932 Art Deco building on the corner of California Boulevard and Monterey Street. He began his venture in 1999 with a decidedly pure vision of a dedicated gallery.
“It was hard in the beginning,” the soft-spoken Steynberg said on a recent morning. “I never thought I would own a coffee shop, but it’s made the whole thing work.”
The coffee shop came later and has allowed Steynberg the financial breathing room to bring talent of all kinds to his space. His gallery is equal parts quirky gathering spot and exhibition room. It’s become, perhaps without Steynberg actually realizing how he did it, a cultural and artistic epicenter, boasting art receptions one night and ever-so-happening pecha kucha presentations another. He may cap off the weekend with a concert or political rally. Jan Marx, the newly elected mayor, had a victory party there the night of her inauguration.
Steynberg’s love for his gallery expands beyond the Art Deco walls, spilling into the neighborhood he happily occupies. He wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, including the city’s crown jewel: downtown.
“Everything is starting to move up this way,” Steynberg said. “The town does not have anywhere else but to move this way.”
Steynberg is not the only uptown enthusiast.
Signs on the track
Zazz Daniel, an owner of a closed-circuit television advertising business, is crazy about uptown, to the extent that he started an organization and website called Uptown SLO, an entity he calls “an alliance of local property, business, and homeowners dedicated to transforming the area into a model mixed-use neighborhood.”
The campaign began in July, with a stated purpose of developing a market for a neighborhood that was already developing into something special.
“Uptown has a tremendous potential as a neighborhood,” said Daniel, a Pismo Beach resident.
He wants to develop a “consistent brand” for the neighborhood. Daniel and his wife, Dove, want to place a sign on the Union Pacific Railroad trestle that runs over Monterey Street. It would read “UPPER MONTEREY” in giant purple letters. The idea is a popular one, though Union Pacific is notoriously slow moving when it comes to approving projects that touch its rail lines.
“We hope to develop a following that will support ideas like this,” said Daniel, conceding that many of his ideas—including the sign—may take a while to get going.
If the effort is successful, Daniel and his wife plan to employ an uptown SLO business model they can market to other neighborhoods.
Daniel is full of ideas, from designing a symbol for the area (for better branding) to plans for an art/tech festival in 2012 to developing “green” lighting to direct tourists to the doors of uptown businesses. He insists that many city officials are enthusiastic about his ideas, and he’s met with local business figures whom he said are on board with him.
“Politics aside, I think what we’re seeing … is moving toward trying to get an identity or a brand for uptown SLO or uptown Monterey,” said George Garcia of Garcia Architecture and Design, which is developing a mixed-use project on the corner of Monterey and Johnson.
There has been talk of a farmers’ market, or art walks similar to those offered in the downtown corridor, Garcia said. Though not a direct challenge to what downtown has cooking on a given Thursday or Friday night, Garcia said some uptown business owners have proposed amping the area’s identity in similar ways.
“And again not wanting to take any thunder away [from downtown], but trying to create some of that synergy in this other district,” he said.
Joanne Currie, owner of the Splash Café, a popular restaurant on upper Monterey, is one of Daniel’s enthusiastic supporters.
Currie loves the place and cites the feel of the neighborhood and its location wedged between the freeway, Cal Poly, and the hotels as some of the reasons she chose to open her restaurant there in 2005. The way she sees it, the area has been undergoing a slow renaissance in the last few years, and Daniel’s influence would only benefit the neighborhood.
“Those ideas could really help unite the small businesses,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons this area is so special. The businesses, along with the [surrounding] neighborhood, fit together. … His ideas could really solidify what’s already going on.”
Not so fast
As enthusiastic as Daniel and his supporters are, his plans haven’t met with a glowing reception from all uptown merchants. An informal survey of business owners up and down Monterey Street revealed that many of them are skeptical of Daniel’s concept. Steynberg, for one, isn’t on board.
“Since I have been here, many have tried to start an organization up this way, “ he said. “People up here value their independence. I value this independence, you know, not to have rules and regulations. Being an artist, I value this independence especially.”
He added that he might be more open to similar plans in the future.
Vern Wilson owns Mathew Taylors, a home accessory and gift shop just down the street from the Steynberg Gallery. As Wilson patrolled the shop, now filled with holiday wares, making small adjustments to presentation pieces, he revealed that he’s not a fan of Daniel’s project.
“I don’t want anyone to do my job for me,” he said speaking of promoting his own business. “Why would I want anyone to do my work for me?”
John Billings, owner of Daylight Home Lighting and Patios, has also decided not to step on the Zazz Daniels express. His store occupies what used to be a Cadillac dealership on Monterey between Grove Street and Grand Avenue.
Billings moved his store from four blocks south on the same street to the former dealership in June and seems to like the new location.
“It’s beautiful up here,” said Billings, who’s moved his business further uptown over the years.
Some uptown business owners said Daniel had asked them for money for his project, crediting this with the decline in enthusiasm. But Daniel denied asking for money from the business owners.
According to Eric Meyer, a city planning commissioner who has his finger on the pulse of much of what goes on in SLO, Daniel has many good ideas, but might be operating at a pace the region isn’t yet prepared to match.
“The underlining premise is great,” Meyer said. “He has a wildly elaborate plan for what is going to happen over the next five years. … He’s full of ideas.”
Meyer said the city has ignored the uptown area, and the neighborhood is ripe for opportunity. The city recently approved a major $1.1 million street repaving for upper Monterey, paid for through the federal stimulus program. While he approves of Daniel’s idea for the sign, he concludes that perhaps Daniel is pushing too hard.
“He’s playing at 45 rpm, and the rest [of the community] is playing at 33 rpm,” Meyer said. “If he was doing just 5 percent of what he was proposing, and then [sitting] back, it would probably be better.”
Deb Cash, executive director of the Downtown Association, said she believes her organization may have begun in the same way as the embryonic efforts on upper Monterey, though she isn’t actually sure: She wasn’t involved in the mid-’70s era that was the genesis time for the association, and many of the group’s early documents were lost in a fire. It was probably much easier for the downtown area, she said, because it was an almost solid retail district that was fairly unified. Still, it took at least three years for things to come together, and there were many fits and starts.
She said she fully supports branding efforts by different neighborhoods, but she’s seen the idea fail on several occasions.
“It’s a hard sell,” Cash said. “New businesses by their very nature are very independent.
“The best thing to do is dip your toe in the water,” she advised. “Start really small with easy projects and build from there.”
While a downtown-type assessment area may be a goal for some in uptown, another area seems to resist the idea entirely.
There’s no marketing campaign brewing south of uptown, and no bright-eyed developer with dreams of injecting a dose of public relations into the vein of a blossoming SLO borough. But perhaps the historic Railroad District doesn’t need it. At least, some business owners there don’t particularly want it.
If there were a movie based on SLO, Jen and Brandon Manuele would be in a deadlock for the part of the young, obnoxiously cute SLO couple. As co-owners of Sally Loo’s Wholesome Café, perched on the corner of Osos and Church streets, the couple blends cheerful baker-barista with mellow bearded local boy. They’ve lived in the district for four years and opened Sally Loo’s last May, Jen said.
“No,” Brandon said, questioning her.
“Yeah, May of ’09,” she said.
“It’ll be two years in May?”
Sitting at a wobbly table in the café—Jen stuffed a few napkins under a leg to keep it steady—they described the Railroad District as a sort of secret pocket of the city. It’s not a locals-only club, but it’s the type of place only locals seem to flock to, aside from the occasional traveler who gets funneled off Santa Rosa Street and has to ask for directions back to Highway 101. They like it that way.
“I feel like… the mood or energy lingers in an area,” Brandon said. “You can feel it here.”
Despite being only a few blocks from the tourist-and-shopper-packed downtown corridor, the district is mostly haunted by people who live in the immediate area. Jen and Brandon, in fact, live just across the street and are a 30-second walk from work, they said. But would they like to reach out more—to be a part of something as organized or formal as a Downtown Association to promote their corner of SLO?
“I hope not,” they responded almost on top of each other.
“I feel like we’re different than the normal businesses,” Jen said, speaking of the district’s tight cluster comprised primarily of restaurants. “We don’t want to bring people here. We like the idea that people stumble upon it as treasure and then treat it as such.”
The Railroad District is one of five historic districts in the city, and the only one with a formal plan. According to a city planning official, the other SLO historic districts—downtown, Mill Street, Chinatown, and old town—are essentially built out and therefore don’t require guidelines dictating building standards. In 1998, the city officially adopted the railroad district plan, a roughly 80-page document that outlines the history of the area, the blight that inspired the historic designation, and standards to preserve and promote the section.
“Historic resources are at risk,” according to the plan. A vertical swath that stretches along the tracks from Johnson Avenue to Orcutt Road, the district has a small bubble of commercial and residential buildings (Hostel Obispo and The Establishment seem to typify the eclectic character there) at its most northern end, and is largely cut off from the most eastern portions of the city except for a bike path and the Jennifer Street bridge constructed in ’98.
Unlike the downtown area, which is under the guidance and financial backing of the Downtown Association—acting as a quasi-government big brother to the area—the Railroad District is recognized mainly in the sense that the city regulates new construction. In addition to including plans for more bike paths and landscaping with a railroad aesthetic flair, the city outlined a few do’s and don’ts for new construction. Do: Architectural styles that fit the “railroad vernacular.” Don’t: Neon signage. Do: Wood and corrugated metal paneling. Don’t: Stucco.
But that’s more or less it. Businesses don’t pay fees. The city keeps an eye on the district, but doesn’t dump money into it in the same way as it does downtown.
“There’s a big difference between the downtown formal association and these sort of tenant neighborhood groups,” said Garcia, who, in addition to his uptown project, is also nearing completion of the redeveloped Railroad Square District building.
Garcia opened his first office in the building before a fire in 2002 gutted the iconic structure. Now, having completed the first phase of redevelopment, Garcia said he’s moving on to the next phase, which will involve two more buildings with office and residential units. Other businesses in the district are also giving themselves a facelift. Sally Loo’s recently reopened following an earthquake retrofit, and the nearby Alano Club is set for redevelopment as well, Garcia said.
But people there aren’t looking to plaster themselves on a stack of ads and the like.
“I think it’s one of those deals where it is local,” Garcia said, “but collectively with all the businesses sort of banding together [they] have been able to have a longer reach in terms of exposure.” ∆
Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. News Editor Colin Rigley contributed to this story. Contact him at email@example.com.