Ken Schwartz was a true SLO visionary

Kenneth Schwartz

OPINION by T. Keith GURNEE

On Oct. 19, we lost Kenneth E. Schwartz who served as one of Cal Poly’s most respected former professors in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design. Ken also served the city of San Luis Obispo as one of its greatest community leaders for decades. Passing at the age of 94, Ken lived a long and distinguished life that few will ever match.

While growing Cal Poly’s Architecture and Environmental Design program, Ken Schwartz served as Mayor of San Luis Obispo from 1969 to 1979, becoming known as the “Father of Mission Plaza.”

He was the driving force behind establishing Mission Plaza as a distinctive public gathering space at the foot of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo. But it wasn’t an easy task. With his passion and persistence in “making the impossible happen,” Ken made Mission Plaza a reality, thereby transforming an underperforming downtown into one of the finest small-town downtowns in California.

Ken was a true visionary who possessed an even rarer quality: the ability to craft a consensus to achieve that vision where few thought it possible before.

His Cal Poly years

After growing up in Los Angeles, Ken became inspired by the modernist architecture that was emerging there in the 1940s. By the mid-1940s, Ken married Martha Riggio and started his family while living on 98th Street in the Watts district of Los Angeles.

After graduating from USC in 1952, Ken was lured to Cal Poly as a faculty member of the architecture program where he enjoyed a long career before retiring in 1988.

During his tenure: Ken served as a professor, associate dean, and interim dean in the department during his 36-years of tenure.

Ken helped launch the City and Regional Planning (CRP) program in 1968 and served as its first program director from 1968 to 1977.

Each year, CRP awards the Ken Schwartz Excellence in Leadership Award to an undergraduate and graduate student who demonstrate the highest ideals of leadership in planning.

My first interaction with Ken was as an 18-year-old freshman architecture student in the late 1960s. The first course I took, “introduction to architecture,” was jointly taught by Ken and then dean George Hasslein.

By bringing in such famous guest lecturers as R. Buckminster Fuller and modernist architect Richard Neutra, he ignited his student’s interest in pursuing such an exciting career. Ken Schwartz impressed us as a rare critical thinker who taught us how to think rather what to think.

His civic years

I got to know Ken better when he was mayor of San Luis Obispo in 1971 when I was the first Cal Poly student elected to San Luis Obispo City Council. I was fortunate enough to be there when we first opened Mission Plaza in 1971.

Previously, from 1959 to 1967, Ken had served on the SLO Planning Commission where he led the effort to formulate and adopt the city’s first general plan. He was instrumental in revitalizing the downtown with its successful street tree program, the undergrounding the spiderwebs of utility lines, and adopting a sign ordinance that have made downtown the attractive place it became.

Then in 1969, riding the wave of strong public support for creating Mission Plaza by an initiative measure he sponsored, city voters approved the measure and elected Ken as mayor by a 2-1 margin and continued in that role until 1979.

During those years, Ken and our City Council approved the city’s first open space element, adopted creek protection policies, started greenbelt protections, restored the historic Jack House, established the city’s public transportation system, enacted the first local campaign finance and conflict of interest regulations in the state, created the Architectural Review Commission, updated the general plan, and enacted floodplain protections. Ken’s leadership was instrumental in all of these successful efforts.

After leaving the office of mayor, Ken served on the SLO County Planning Commission in the early 1980s and was appointed to fill a SLO City Council vacancy in the 1998 until the beginning of the 21st century. But he wasn’t done yet.

His later years

After retiring from Cal Poly and then from politics in 2001, Ken remained very active in civic affairs. In 1990, Ken collaborated with graphic artist Pierre Rademaker, and architects Chuck Crotser, Andrew Merriam, and Rod Lenin to create the first downtown concept plan, a visionary plan of what downtown might become in the future. That plan was unanimously approved in concept by the SLO City Council in May 1993.

In 1997, Ken received the well-deserved APA Distinguished Leadership Award for helping “San Luis Obispo gain a reputation as one of the most beautiful, well-planned small cities on the West Coast” and for “making the impossible happen.”

After adopting its latest general plan update in 2014, the city resolved to update the downtown concept plan and a concept plan for improving Mission Plaza. Ken Schwartz was appointed to a creative vision team to oversee the updated downtown concept plan.

Entering his 90s in 2015, he started having health problems and asked me to take his place on the team, but he still kept a burning interest in what might come out of that process.

From 2015 through 2017, Ken and I collaborated on a weekly basis in preparing a series of sketches to enhance and expand Mission Plaza as part of the downtown concept plan. The vision we crafted called for the significant revitalization of Mission Plaza and extending it down to Nipomo Steet with additional park, plaza, and ADA accessibility improvements.

As a result, our sketches were incorporated in the downtown concept plan that was unanimously adopted by the city in 2017. Implementing those concepts for expanding Mission Plaza would be the ultimate complement to his vision and leadership.

As his health declined, I visited him regularly at his home and in his healthcare facilities. At my last visit with him just two weeks before his passing, I could tell he was getting ready to go. When I left him that day, I said “It’s great to see you” and he replied “It’s great to be seen!”

Sadly, we won’t be seeing him again, but we will never forget him.

Final thoughts

Ken Schwartz leaves behind so many legacies: a great family man, the steward of a great small town, the rarest of visionaries, the keeper of great friendships, a true compassion for his community, as an inspiration to all who knew him, and as the “Father of Mission Plaza.”

When I asked his daughter Lorraine what quality best defined him, she answered “Persistence. He would never let go.” I couldn’t disagree, but it was his odd combination of humility and passion that stood out to me.
Kenneth Schwartz will be sorely missed by those who had the privilege of knowing a good and decent man.

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One Comment about “Ken Schwartz was a true SLO visionary”

  1. Sulla says:

    You forgot the street trees. You and Ken et al did so much that it is easy to forget when San Luis Obispo was described by a national travel writer passing through in the mid 1960s as “an eyesore”. I am just old enough to remember a “treeless” downtown. The current tree lined streets transformed all of downtown, and not just the plaza.

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