Save Our Downtown is a grassroots organization advocating on behalf of the citizens of San Luis Obispo for a livable, vibrant and historic Downtown.
The core group of members regularly attends and contributes to City Council and Advisory Body public hearings pertaining to projects (and tree removals) located in the Downtown Core.
In addition to public testimony, letters of support and/or concern are distributed to Council members, Advisory Body members, City staff and to the local press on a regular basis.
Save Our Downtown was founded by Elisabeth Abrahams and David Brodie in March of 2007. The overriding concern at that time was that the public at large had little knowledge of, and worse yet even less involvement in, the decision-making process affecting major projects proposed to be located within the Downtown Core. The only stakeholders actively involved in shaping these projects were the downtown property owners, the developers, the Downtown Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the City Council and one or more advisory bodies.
Prior to the formation of Save Our Downtown, the Council, without significant input from the public, delisted the historic Loobliner & Schwartz Building thereby allowing its demolition in 2004, The City declared that one of its parking structures could be a “landmark building” entitling it to exceed the maximum building height by 25 feet and the Council engaged the Copeland family in negotiations to approve yet another project involving the demolition of four more historic properties.
Anticipating two major projects in the pipeline - the Chinatown Project and the Garden Street Terraces Project - the Council, again with little input from the public, approved raising the height limit for all downtown buildings to 75 feet (15 feet higher than the 60 foot height limit for downtown Santa Barbara, a city twice our size). Soon after its formation in 2007, Save Our Downtown vociferously opposed this increase in building height and intensity limits in the Downtown Commercial Zone, for the following reasons:
· First, taller buildings downtown would block views of the surrounding hills and Morros - a quality much valued by tourists and local residents.
· Second, taller buildings would create wind tunnels, particularly along streets running in alignment to the Los Osos and Chorro Valleys.
· Third, taller buildings would create shade where sunlight is needed given the ambient cool, marine temperatures that predominate year round in San Luis Obispo.
· Fourth, tall buildings (particularly those that are not adequately “stepped-back” from the street) would deprive San Luis Obispo of its small-town charm.
· And fifth, tall buildings would encourage the demolition of predominately low-rise, historic properties.
Failing in its attempt to persuade the City Council to reconsider its newly adopted height ordinance, Save Our Downtown decided that its only recourse was to provide input on all Downtown projects, including new construction, demolitions and remodels. As a result of this, Save Our Downtown was successful in preserving and restoring historic buildings and resources within the Chinatown and Garden Street Terraces projects and helped persuade the developers of both projects to reduce their heights from 75 feet to 50 feet.
Save Our Downtown initiated or participated in 3 appeals to the City Council:
· The Cultural Heritage Committee’s recommended demolition of a ca. 1877 addition to the Mancillas/Frietas adobe in 2007. This was opposed because of Save Our Downtown’s concern for preserving the “flow of history”...in other words...concern for preserving the “ad hoc” nature of buildings accreted over time. Demolition of this circa 1887 addition would set a precedent allowing - for example - the future demolition of the 19th century additions to the Leitcher House Adobe or allowing the future demolition of the 19th century additions to the Gough Adobe.
· The Planning Commission’s approval of SLO Brew Company’s significant expansion and remodel of the historic Carrissa Building in 2012. Save Our Downtown opposed the 63% expansion of a bar that has historically been a nuisance to neighboring businesses, opposed the significant expansion of the bar within a City and Downtown already exceeding ABC’s maximum per capita number of alcohol outlets, opposed the encroachment of the bar’s activities onto Mission Plaza and opposed the significant remodel of both the front and rear elevations of an historically listed building. The appeal resulted in major reductions in the size of the SLO Brew project.
· The Cultural Heritage Committee’s approval of the Mission School Annex in 2014. This project was opposed jointly by Save Our Downtown and by the Mission Orchard Neighborhood Association because City staff had accelerated the approval process by eliminating initial environmental studies of a site situated on an ancient Indian burial ground, on the site of a former tannery and on the site of San Luis Obispo’s first mill. This project was also inadequately noticed. And finally, this project was being approved in a neighborhood that is historically “under-parked” without the provision for adequate on-site or off-site parking. This appeal resulted in improvements in the City notification process.
Save Our Downtown formed 4 ad hoc committees and retired 3 after completing their assigned tasks:
· It formed a Tree Committee resulting in suggested revisions to the tree ordinance in 2010.
· Soon after, SOD formed a Pedestrian/Downtown Concept Plan Committee. In 2012 this Committee presented a 45 page document (plus graphics) to the City.
· SOD later formed a Marketing Film Committee. In 2012, this Committee put together a narration and storyboard describing the unique qualities of the Downtown Core.
· Most recently, SOD formed a Merchant Association Committee. In 2013, this Committee completed a survey and beta-tested it.
Save Our Downtown has circulated petitions at the Thursday Night Markets, placed a “Shop Downtown SLO for the Holidays” ad in the Tribune, solicited “vision statements” from Council members and has spoken several times on KVEC’s Dave Congalton’s Show bringing the public up to date on its current endeavors.
On October 14, 2010, Save Our Downtown sponsored and conducted a televised City Council candidate forum in the Council Chambers.
SOD has provided weekly notifications about upcoming City meetings as well as updates on its own endeavors to its email members.
Save Our Downtown has invited City staff (including the Community Development Director and Police Chief), City Council members, City Council candidates, architects, planners and developers to its weekly meetings.
Save Our Downtown has provided input on workshops related to the Historic Preservation Ordinance and Historic Guidelines, an Ordinance Amending the Municipal Code Relating To Sidewalk Cafes, the Bike Plan Update, Downtown Maintenance and Beautification, Wayfinding Sign Program, Alcohol Outlet Public Safety Strategies and Mobile Vendors Workshop, City SWOT
Analysis, LUCE Update and Future Fairs, Neighborhood Wellness Plan, Economic Development Strategic Plan, Financial Plan Community Forum, Homelessness Workshop, Goal Setting Workshop, the Peter Kageyama Workshop, South Broad Street Area Plan, Appropriate Review Authority For Development Projects On Historic Properties, the Downtown Association Strategic Plan Update and the SLOCOG Open House.
In its effort to enhance community involvement and outreach, Save Our Downtown successfully organized 3 well-attended public workshops.
In 2008, a Visionary Workshop with 90 participants, set priorities for the downtown:
First priority was their concern for the “preservation of the authentic and distinctive architectural character of San Luis Obispo.”
This was followed by their concern for the “preservation of a sense of history.”
Their third priority was “protecting views of the hills/Cerros.
In 2009, a Downtown Small Business Visionary Workshop identified obstacles and opportunities for success in light of current and emerging problems.
Key factors for the success of small businesses in the Downtown Core:
2) A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY
3) LOCAL CHARM
Key small business problems included:
1) Lack of business loans
2) Retail spaces are not easily sub-dividable.
3) A consensus among diverse stakeholders is hard to achieve.
4) Side street businesses get too little exposure
5) The City doesn’t provide local merchants with enough lead time for street closures.
6) The City won’t allow small restaurants to place tables or chairs along the sidewalk.
7) Downtown SLO has become too student-oriented.
8) The unique feel of our Downtown is slipping away.
Key solutions which will result in the success of small businesses in the Downtown Core were identified as follows:
1) Provide kiosks within the parking garages that would advertise and describe the location of downtown shops (particularly the side-street shops);
2) Encourage businesses having difficult paying their rents to move to the less expensive side-street locations;
3) Encourage the City to provide start-up businesses with 6-month front-end cost waivers;
4) Encourage the small business owner to “steal” ideas from the national chain stores;
5) Small business owners should endeavor to uniquely link their stores to the unique history of Downtown (i.e., one should grow a “tree” from its “roots”);
6) There should be a system of “magnets” that will draw visitors past the small Downtown shops (i.e., magnets such as anchor stores, major art installations, etc.);
7) Widen sidewalks (i.e., make Higuera a two-lane street without parking).
In 2011 a Walkability Workshop, an Awareness Walk and a Discovery Walk were held for the public, Council members and City staff, who identified the following:
What discourages walkability?
1) High-volume, loud car traffic
2) Absences of mid-block crosswalks
3) Lack of necessity goods stores
(i.e., hardware and grocery stores)
What encourages walkability?
1) Wider sidewalks
2) Centralized, off-sidewalk bike parking
3) Dog friendly (i.e., waste bag dispensers, water pans, etc.)
4) Well-lit streets and stores at night
What is appealing about Downtown?
1) Historic architecture
2) Trees and planters
3) Outdoor seating
What is not appealing about Downtown?
1) View of parking lots
2) Lack of mid-block crossings
4) Narrow sidewalks
Where would people linger Downtown?
1) Where public seating and outdoor dining are present
2) Where natural elements like the creek, creek sounds, and greenery are present.