San Luis Obispo’s staff, reactionary and manipulative

December 7, 2012

Richard Schmidt

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.

 


37 Comments

  1. slosheepdog says:

    Amen Brother!
    At least someone else sees who really runs this city, the chamber. Anyone want to wager a bet on how much investment the city has in the chamber moving to a new location downtown? From whatever fund it is being drawn from while the city leaders distract your attention elsewhere, I would bet that taxpayer dollars are being dumped into that project by the truckload.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 5

  2. seesfarther says:

    If Mr Schmidt really wants examine the developments that have changed the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’, he need look no further than the section of town that fronts Los Osos Valley Rd from Hwy 101 to Madonna Rd, and around the corner back to Hwy 101.

    That’s right…. the Big Box stores.

    Friends from out of town ask me, “Why the hell did you let THAT happen?!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 8

    • Crusader says:

      Why should government be allowed to control and manipulate what stores are built and operate in a community so long as all planning specifications are met? To suggest they should is utter hubris.

      That’s just what SLO Gov’t did. SLO Gov’t “protected” downtown for years by making development extremely difficult in other parts of town. That drove rents through the roof in downtown result in a place that is now made up of bars, restaurants and trinket shoppes.

      Now that there are shopping alternatives, locals simply ignore downtown — a place geared for students and tourists.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

      • Willow says:

        You’re absolutely right! When I think of shopping, I certainly don’t think of shopping in downtown SLO. It’s all yuppie & touristy’d out. Who needs all that pretentiousness? And yes, it is pretentious – who ever said that every downtown and shopping center is supposed to look like a Disneyland wanna-be? And have all the same stores and all the same things to buy as the next town down the street?

        What gets me, tho’ is how people are elected into offices to conduct city or county business – but it sure seems all they do is defer to “staff”, and pretty much ignore public input. “Staff” doesn’t represent me or anyone in the community. They are themselves. So why are elected officials doing what ‘staff” tells them to do? And if that’s the case, let’s just get rid of the elected officials – would save us a lot of money, wouldn’t it? It appears that “staff” are just little tyrants used to getting the elected “representatives” to do what they want done anyway. And it sure seems like no one ever says “no” to “staff” – and tells them “this is what is what The People just told us they want, and this is what YOU are going to do to make it happen for them.”

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. TaxMeAgain says:

    Bingo. This is right on target. All of these issues, however, are fixable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 5

  4. Jorge Estrada says:

    I’ve lived elsewhere in my youth, where coming home from a vacation was depressing. Living here is like never needing a vacation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 3

    • Crusader says:

      Sadly the more that move here, the less it becomes like a “vacation” for those that were already here.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  5. abigchocoholic says:

    You want a tissue? Some cheese with that whine?

    No matter how good people have it, there will always be some who love to complain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 11

  6. unlisted says:

    When someone starts an arguement with a blatant lie, I tend to ignore everything else that person says.

    So it is with Mr. Schmidt and his statement “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” in SLO city. Being an expert in the field (architect, teacher, planning commissioner and member of the housing element task force), he should have known how easy it would be for people to check his so-called FACT.

    The reality is that the tenancy ratio has not changed much in SLO over the past 20 years. Home owners are not leaving in droves. How could Mr. Schmidt claim such a thing? And, more importantly, how could he think that rational people would believe his rants?

    The 1990 Census reports that only 44.1% of the city’s housing units were owner-occupied, not 60% as Mr. Schmidt claims. This statistic can be found on page 10 of Census volume 1990 CH-1-6, the 1990 Census of Housing, General Housing Characteristics for California, Section 1 of 2, which can be found online at http://www.census.gov/prod/cen1990/ch1/ch-1-6.pdf.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 10

    • Willow says:

      I can tell you this – people are leaving the state – including businesses, families, and individuals – and the state knows it.

      Their solution? The state legislature is now considering levying a tax on businesses that want to leave the state. Yup, they want us to pay a “get outta jail” tax before we can move out of this state!

      Extortionists run this state and county, and SLO.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. dante0182 says:

    Bless Jenkins and Saro for having the courage to challenge the established political power in the community and defend those of us who have little to no say or political pull.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 11

  8. Mr. Holly says:

    It’s all about city managers. Look at the cities that are controversial. Paso Robles-App, Atascadero-McKinney and San Luis Obispo-Lichti.
    The City Councils hire these people and if they let then stay in place they must evidently support them.
    The City Councils also have the ability to replace them and find someone that will support and pursue the will of the people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 4

  9. willieslo says:

    I like to first ask Attorneys Jenkins and Saro to get their pety little legal @’s out of our community concerns, if they really want to be helpful join the Salvation Army

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 16

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