The sense and reality of community is precious, fragile and elusive. An urban community is often defined by its physical setting, its arrangement and use of buildings, and the resultant ability of citizens to communicate and interact with one another and feel the identity of place.
The San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce made an eloquent presentation of its newly adopted vision for San Luis Obispo to the city council. Their vision described many wonderful things, including the desire to develop small start-up businesses to preserve unique features of San Luis Obispo and to take advantage of our physical setting, being an educational center and a medical center. Everyone present seemed to agree with the vision as stated.
It is easy to be skeptical, however. For example, the brochures setting forth the new vision had a beautiful two-page photograph of San Luis Mountain, obviously a unique feature of our community. Yet the several high-rise developments going through the city process (think one Wineman Hotel on top of another) that will block the view of this mountain, block lights to the streets, and remove trees brought not a single comment or criticism from the Chamber. Knowing abundant parking is necessary for the survival of small businesses in the core of downtown, the Chamber made no peep of protest over the $10-million gift of parking spaces to the Chinatown Project or the diminished parking that will result from these other high rise developments.
Though the Chamber’s vision speaks of preserving the cultural and physical heritage of San Luis Obispo, not once has the Chamber spoken up against a project that threatens an historic building. Not once has the Chamber objected to projects that propose large retail spaces, presumably to be filled by corporate outlets who pay near minimum wages and take their profits out of town to the detriment of local small business people.
In fact, over the years, the Chamber of Commerce, along with the Downtown Business Association, has been little more than a lobbying group for various development projects. They have been effective, particularly with a city council whose primary concern is projects that will increase the tax base, often at the expense of community cultural values and aesthetics.
Those of us who are members of the group Save Our Downtown sincerely hope the new vision statement presented by the Chamber of Commerce foretells a change in their past practices. We certainly hope they will join us in helping preserve the cultural heritage, small businesses, and those characteristics that define our community. A wise politician said, “Don’t pay attention to what we say, pay attention to what we do.” We will be watching for the future actions of the Downtown Association and the Chamber of Commerce.
Anyone who wonders what the loss of community could result in should walk down Higuera Street on any day at almost any time, and then take a walk down Broadway, the main drag in Santa Maria. The effects of loss of community will be obvious.