San Luis Obispo’s staff, reactionary and manipulative
December 7, 2012
OPINION By RICHARD SCHMIDT
It may seem a paradox that angry homeowners are leaving the “happiest place in America” in droves and that they’re being replaced by transient renters, with the result that over the past 20 years the homeowner/renter ratio has gone from about 60 percent/ 40 percent to more than a reversal of those ratios. Why is this happening if San Luis Obispo is really the “happiest place in America?”
The answer isn’t a puzzle if one reads Dan Buettner’s book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, where the “happiest place” label was bestowed, and then looks at San Luis Obispo’s politics today.
In Thrive Buettner describes a place that became extraordinary because city hall made caring for residents its highest priority and learned how to conduct a grand civic conversation with residents about things that matter. This led to residents feeling empowered, and that, says Buettner, made them happy.
Today, with successive city councils having surrendered both power and responsibility to a reactionary and manipulative staff, there is little caring for residents, and no grand civic conversation that involves residents. “Happiest place” describes a city that no longer exists except in public relations pieces crafted to brag, reassure and cover up for this loss.
Buettner’s story tells of a city, led by mayor and city council, standing up against what Buettner calls the city’s “reactionary business community.” Front and center in this confrontation were two downtown planning battles. In the first, the city, with support of its residents, planted street trees downtown (who can imagine our downtown without those glorious ficus and carob trees?) despite opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and the downtown business establishment.
One prominent merchant was alleged to have poisoned the tree in front of his establishment; the city promptly planted another tree in the same spot. And that’s how we got our much-admired tree-shaded downtown.
The bigger battle, the one that ultimately brought reformers to political power, was about use of land across Monterey Street from the Mission, and the future of the street itself. The Chamber and downtown business establishment wanted ramshackle buildings on Monterey replaced with a huge parking garage, which would extend over and cover San Luis Creek.
Reformers wanted to close that block of Monterey, create a public plaza and park in front of the Mission, clean up the creek and turn it into a public amenity. This battle raged for years, and was resolved only when reformers mounted a citizens’ initiative to create the plaza, and ran candidates for mayor and council along with the initiative. The election’s outcome left no doubt about where residents stood. Today’s Mission Plaza and creek walk are their response to the business establishment.
Public conversation about the plaza was the beginning of a grand civic conversation, promoted henceforth by city hall, that shaped city actions for two decades, till in the early 1990s reactionary staff teamed up with Buettner’s “reactionary business community” to stage a coup d’état, the gist of which was the city’s function should no longer be the care of residents but rather, as a former city executive put it, “the care and feeding of business.” Today city hall operates like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the business establishment.
This shift in civic focus marked the beginning of the city’s homeowner exodus and the end of the grand civic conversation’s resident empowerment on which “happiness” was built.
Today’s lack of genuinely open, as opposed to staff-manipulated, civic conversation is the source of city-resident friction, and permeates city actions at all levels. So, today, when residents take a problem to the city, they get tossed around by staff – sometimes for years on end – with no resolution. If they then take their problem to the City Council, they’re likely to get another brushoff. Residents who want the city to tend to immediate life safety problems, like dangerous neighborhood sidewalks and clogged flood culverts, get nowhere; they’re told these imminent hazards will be tended to when the city gets around to it, some years from now.
Recently, a group of Old Town neighbors took their concern about impending installation of chattering traffic signals in front of their homes, and just feet from their bedroom windows, to staff. After months of doubletalk, they sought time to address the Council, which listened to staff, then refused to hear the residents’ concerns.
Or, we can look at bigger, citywide examples. Take one emblematic case: the civic treatment of commercial signage. Led by reform Mayor Kenneth Schwartz, by profession an architect and city planner, city hall reformers turned their eye to creating a harmonious visual environment to replace what Schwartz described as the “Anyplace, USA” appearance of commercial districts. Commercial signs, previously all but unregulated, henceforth had to be reviewed by citizen planners for size, placement, design, typography and color. In shopping centers like the Albertson/Rite-Aid center on Foothill, overall signage plans were developed that resulted in harmonious signs which looked like well-behaved siblings.
The effort successfully tamed visual clutter, and, Buettner notes in Thrive, helped define the “happiest place.” This visual harmony grew from a consensus based on civic conversation and the city’s both promoting the conversation and getting behind its resulting consensus, then being willing to stand up to the visual excesses of commerce. When the city’s purpose was redefined as “the care and feeding of business,” reactionary city staff blew away the visual harmony created by the grand civic conversation, and the result is today’s visual cacophony indistinguishable from any other Chamber-of-Commerce-driven city up and down the state of California.
In its commercial signage, San Luis Obispo is back to the “Anyplace, USA” quality that led Schwartz and other reformers to react as they did. Worth noting: today’s visual cacophony is promoted by a city that charges sign design review fees that would have made the original sign reformers blush with shame.
Signage cacophony is amplified by the city’s turning a blind eye to the proliferation of sandwich board curbside and off-premise signs. This portable blight, which is flat-out against the law and in the old days wouldn’t have survived 24 hours without citation, goes unchecked by a business-friendly city that instead directs its police powers to harassing residents over petty minutiae like where they put their garbage cans and how long they park their cars on the street in front of their own houses.
City reformers also looked to redesigning and repainting street furniture as a way to create a visual style unique to this city. This was one of Mayor Schwartz’s big initiatives, but it wasn’t so much forced forward by him as it was carried forward by volunteer citizen design reviewers with his encouragement. Over time, results became comprehensive. Galvanized steel signposts gave way to unique “hairpin” sign standards of tubular steel, trash containers and news racks downtown were specially designed, and study went to finding a color that would make utilitarian street furniture recede harmoniously into the background. Color tests were done in prominent locations, opinions solicited, and after civic conversation about the pros and cons of each color test, an olive green shade was selected. With its broad application, everything – sign standards, trash containers, parking meter posts, traffic signal poles, light standards, news racks and utility boxes – blended into the growing urban forest that was arching over downtown streets.
When the 1990s coup d’état overthrew the grand civic conversation and everything it stood for, all that changed. Just look at the ugliness of downtown street furnishings today: a ratty mix of different colors applied to different objects, and bare metal galvanized sign posts rising again. Here and there vestiges of “Schwartz green” can be seen, not yet relegated to the ash-heap of “happiest place” days. With the grand civic conversation replaced by staff usurpation of authority and a cynical pretext of public participation via hand-picked special purpose “stakeholder” task forces and committees staff can manipulate, there’s no longer any overarching care or consistency to what the city does; they do what business wants, and come up with rationalizations for what they do on an ad hoc basis. There is also no buy-in from residents. Things happen to residents; things no longer happen because residents want them to happen.
Today, as I write, we can witness yet another example of where replacement of the grand civic conversation with manipulated ersatz public involvement has led: the repainting of traffic signal utility boxes. During the great conversation’s consensus years, it was agreed these were ugly pieces of street furniture that should be visually blended into the background. Suddenly, without public discussion, let alone buy-in, that flipped 180 degrees. Now these ugly objects are receiving extraordinary paint jobs that seek to call attention to them instead of making them disappear. How did this radical reversal happen? The reactionary staff cooked it up, put it before a city council which pretty much does whatever staff tells them to do, and voila – 35 years of community consensus was sent to the dump.
When utility boxes downtown began to be painted, the public’s back-talk was about the $2,000 per box the city was paying “artists” to make the boxes jump out at us, and also about the visual quality, or lack thereof, of the “art.” As the painting moved, unannounced, let alone discussed, from downtown into neighborhoods and far-flung corners of the city, the quality of the painting became more in-your-face. There’s no ambiguity about what has happened: ugly objects that during the decades of civic conversation had by consensus been painted to recede into the background were, in the post-happiest-place era, being used as surfaces for city-sponsored graffiti. Whether residents wanted this in front of their houses or not wasn’t even a consideration. As far as the city was concerned, that didn’t matter.
So there’s no paradox in the exodus of homeowners from the “happiest place.” The “happiest place” Buettner described is history. It was deliberately killed and replaced by our city government with something much more banal: a city that’s for sale to business. The sense of citizen empowerment that made people happy residents is gone. No wonder so many home-owing residents are leaving.
Richard Schmidt is an architect and teacher, and served for 19 years as a volunteer on various city committees and commissions, including eight years on the Planning Commission, terms on the Waterways Planning Board, Environmental Quality Task Force, Election Regulations Committee, and Housing Element Task Force, and is sick about what his city has become in the last decade and a half.