SLO Downtown in peril

Allan Cooper

OPINION by ALLAN COOPER

An open letter to supporters of Save Our Downtown and concerned citizens

I hope you are all safe and taking the necessary precautions to stay well!

For 13 years, I have been emailing you my weekly report notifying you of upcoming San Luis Obispo City Council meetings. These weekly reports also alerted to projects that are coming before the city for approval – projects that we might be concerned about. Well presently, there are no upcoming city meetings planned and there are no projects coming before the city.

So, instead, permit me to talk about our downtown in crisis. Permit me to also provide you with a “real world” assessment of where I think we may be going and how to make the best of it.

As if you didn’t have enough to be depressed about, I thought I might share with you my worst case scenario of where we might be in 18 to 24 months (and I hope I am wrong about this).

Here is why I believe – at least for the present – that this worst case scenario will come to pass.

With the exception of economic bailouts – bailouts which will have only short term benefits – our President will not use his broad executive powers to address this crisis. This includes the Defense Production Act which authorizes the President to require businesses to sign contracts or fulfill orders deemed necessary for national defense, i.e., to force businesses to ramp up the manufacture of ventilators, M95 masks, test kits, etc. Instead, the President is expecting volunteer efforts will be coming from the private sector to meet this urgent need.

Even though some of our governors have mobilized the National Guard, our President has chosen not to mobilize the United States Armed Forces to provide the much-needed medical personnel who can provide immediate lifesaving measures, disease prevention and care.

There has been no order coming from the White House to impose a national lockdown. Some States are responding to the crisis yet many are not. Because of this, we are left with the prospect of millions of people dying and long term economic depression.

We now know that there will be an accelerated reoccurrence of zoonotic pandemics. These pandemics are linked to climate change. We will repeatedly be confronted with a new viral mutation for which we will not have a vaccine. And then we will be back to “square one”.

So it occurred to me that while we are in the throes of this pandemic, we should be redesigning our cities and, more specifically, rethinking our downtowns in such a way that we can continue to function not only between pandemics but also during pandemics.

Our downtown in crisis – A real world assessment of where we may be going and how to make the best of it

When the COVID-19 virus runs its course after 18 to 24 months of shelter in place, Downtown San Luis Obispo will be unrecognizable. It will be a ghost town. Windows will be boarded up. Not only will most businesses have filed for bankruptcy but the property owners will no longer be receiving their rents.

As a result, our downtown will be showing some wear and tear for lack of normal upkeep. Some out of town Cal Poly students will be returning to SLO but in much smaller numbers as fewer families will be able to afford the tuition.

The only good news for these students is that rents will have dropped precipitously. Due to a steep drop in overall employment, downtown will no longer be drawing upon a workforce that resides in the surrounding communities so there will be less commuting. Tourism will have disappeared. The County Historical Museum, the SLO Repertory Theater, the Art Museum and the Children’s Museum will all be shuttered. Reviving these non-profits will be a slow and painful process.

Both County and City government will have drastically scaled back their number of employees. Both government entities will have likely filed chapter 9 bankruptcies. This will result in a vast reduction in the number of attorneys. And this will correspondingly empty out existing professional office space.

New businesses will be slow to move into these empty spaces. The city planners will bend its rules to insure that any and all vacant retail and office space will be filled as quickly as possible. But in the interim, during the next 18 to 24 months when little development is taking place our planners and residents will have spare time to develop a plan for a new downtown, a downtown that finally addresses both our needs and how to cope with future pandemics.

Downtown could be a vehicle for social cohesion and an opportunity for re-empowerment through renewed citizen participation. But perhaps more importantly we must not go back to “business as usual.” We must redesign our downtowns so that they can continue to function even during pandemics.

After all, future pandemics should redefine what congregate space will look like. We will no longer have theaters, no longer have bars and no longer have densely packed dining facilities. High density communal living will no longer be considered desirable. This will result in the emptying out of student dormitories and nursing homes.

But we can create opportunities to enjoy downtown while maintaining social distancing. Here is an opportunity for the “greening” of our downtown by way of planting more trees, creating more parks and improving access to our creeks. Streets will be closed and converted into linear parks.

There will no longer be big box stores packed full of customers with long check-out lines. Instead, we will have the opportunity to increase the presence of small, locally owned stores offering locally sourced goods and services. These stores will be designed to accommodate only one or two customers at any given time.

During pandemics, the goods will be displayed behind glass and handled by the merchants wearing protective gloves. Many of these start ups could be introduced into our downtown as pop-ups (i.e., temporary stores that rotate in and out of these retail spaces) with short-term lease obligations and reduced rents. Should these businesses fail (due to a pandemic or otherwise) they will not be taking unacceptably high financial risks.

Outdoor markets will proliferate again offering locally sourced goods. But these vendors, wearing protective gloves and gowns, should not allow customers to handle the produce. Downtown offices will be converted into residences that will peacefully coexist with these low-intensity, low-impact retail experiences. Very little new construction will take place but this will be a time for massive adaptive-reuse projects.

Higher density housing will be incorporated into existing buildings with an emphasis on providing all the amenities needed during home quarantines. All of these residences will accommodate kitchen gardens, play areas, exercise rooms, large pantries and foyers with secured space to take in delivery packages. Their power should come from solar panels mounted on their roofs and some of their water could be supplied through the use of rain cisterns.

Of course between pandemics, there will be places, both indoors and outdoors, for large numbers of people to assemble in order to listen to live performances, to dance or to otherwise socially interact in close quarters. But indoor assembly areas should be flexibly designed so that during pandemics they can be easily decommissioned and converted into spaces for ICU beds. Outdoor assembly areas will be staging areas for temporary field hospitals.

In conclusion, instead of allowing our downtown to morph into a single-use entertainment center patronized by tourists and students, instead of relying solely on e-commerce and giving up on brick and mortar retail, we residents have the unique opportunity to reclaim our downtown as our own. We can do this while maintaining its viability through good times and bad.

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