Pushing his classic steel-framed bike down the wet streets near Steynberg Gallery in SLO, Eric Meyer paused to point out a pair of craftsman-style houses he’d renovated. Formerly shabby college bungalows, the houses stood side by side, with tidy lawns and fresh paint. The whole neighborhood, he noted, used to be a little run-down—student housing turned into a neighborhood. Meyer puts a lot of emphasis on building communities.
He’s also a big believer in using better design to achieve better results.
For his part, Meyer has restored several houses near downtown SLO, including the historic Mitchell house. He’s not restoring housing these days—the market doesn’t make sense, he said. Yet Meyer has found himself poised to make a much larger impact on his neighborhood, and others in SLO as well, as one of three new members on the city’s most influential citizen advisory board: the Planning Commission.
Meyer’s resume stands out among the group of new commissioners as reflecting the least direct planning experience. But as SLO city councilmember, and one of the three-member panel that appointed Meyer, Allen Settle said, “We want diversity on the commission. … We want fresh eyes.”
Still in his 40s, Meyer is free to pursue his own interests. He is tall, lithe, and speaks of his own success in modest terms. He’s lived on the Central Coast most of his life, originally hailing from Morro Bay, but is solidly rooted in SLO now. As a designer for Vision Street Wear in the ’80s, Meyer helped invent a style for skateboarders. Early in the following decade, Meyer and his wife Cynthia created Simple Shoes, a brand that has ballooned and found a niche in obsessively eco-friendly shoes. They sold the company in 1996,.
Of Simple, Meyer said, “I kind of didn’t believe my own hype at some point—it wasn’t simple anymore.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 17, Meyer, along with Michael Boswell, who was formerly on the commission, and Mike Draze, who only recently retired from the city’s planning staff, had their first meeting as commissioners. In the most basic terms, planning commissioners interpret whether new projects conform to the General Plan, which describes goals and boundaries for development. They also help shape the General Plan. Settle described them as quasi-judicial.
“They have proven instrumental in keeping a successfully managed land-use policy,” Settle said, warning, “Once you’ve established policy, it tends to be forever.”
If Meyer’s own home is any indication of the kind of development he would advocate, expect solar panels; passive solar design, such as windows that face the sun; high-density building; and outdoor spaces such as porches that encourage people to mingle.
Some people call such development “smart growth,” a buzzword Meyer doesn’t use when describing the type of development that interests him. The concept encourages “infill” instead of urban sprawl, multi-use projects (not unlike the proposed Chinatown development), and walkable, bike-ridable towns, as an alternative to automobilecentric cities.
Meyer said he is particularly interested in creating affordable spaces for artists and nonprofits, in part through creative zoning.
“There is a lot of room to interpret the General Plan,” he said. “As commissioners, I think we have to help interpret the public’s desire. The city has an outline that they’re working from, and I think we have to ride the fence.
“We already have a really cool General Plan,” Meyer went on. “The problem is no one follows it.”
Meyer said he recognizes a bigger change, both ideological and practical, happening. Many people are choosing to live more moderate lifestyles—smaller cars, smaller spaces—but the state is also passing laws that hold cities accountable for their own greenhouse gas emissions. Meyer also pointed out a state program that finances solar panels on new developments, noting that if you want developers to include green design, you have to require it.
Of Meyer’s experience, Settle said only, “Eric likes to think outside the box, but he likes to compromise.”
Many people look to the Planning Commission as a stepping stone to a higher office, city council for example, but Meyer is reticent to announce plans beyond serving on the Planning Commission.
“For now, I have to figure out what I can deal with,” he said, pointing to criticism and judgment laid on public figures. “I know not everyone is going to like all the decisions I’m going to make.
“You’ve gotta do the Buddhist thing,” he went on, “ride the Middle Path.”
Contact Staff writer Kylie Mendonca at firstname.lastname@example.org