Copeland grip on downtown SLO nightmare for some

March 11, 2009
Has downtown San Luis Obispo become the private domain of developer Tom Copeland? It's not unimaginable. -- Photo by Daniel Blackburn

Has downtown San Luis Obispo become the private domain of developer Tom Copeland? It's not unimaginable. — Photo by Daniel Blackburn


There are nicknames aplenty for the city of San Luis Obispo, and many have a commonality, the name Copeland: “Copelandville,” “Copelandburg,” “Copeland Kingdom,” and of course, “Cope-Land, ” to list but a few.

References to the Copeland family, and its out-front principal, Tom, as the reigning royalty of downtown San Luis Obispo are delivered with alternating respect and sarcasm, but Tom Copeland’s influence is undeniable. He and his reclusive brother Jim have developed the Downtown Centre, the Court Street shopping center, and will construct the controversial Chinatown project. He also has purchased a two-story building and parking lot at Higuera and Morro streets, and recently told SLO that he has not yet determined a use.

But is the county’s largest city, known and appreciated nationally for its small-town ambiance and its quaint, casual character, selling out to bigness? More importantly, are city officials giving special consideration to Tom Copeland?

And is it still the intention of city officials to “maintain and expand on the unique pedestrian character and small-town feel” of San Luis Obispo as trumpeted by the local downtown merchants’ group?

That stated objective is being altered irrevocably by actions of those city officials and the Copelands, according to a number of local business owners who spoke to CalCoastNews.

If Tom Copeland’s position in the city as its premiere developer and favorite son wasn’t solidified by December 22, 2003, it was in the immediate aftermath of that day’s big story, the San Simeon Earthquake. For in the wake of that deadly temblor, cities all over the county began to consider the issue of retrofitting older buildings to conform with modern engineering principles.

With that, opportunities loomed for some in the San Luis Obispo downtown area. But for others on a long list of downtown business operators — people who had staked their business futures to the health, vitality and cultural reputation of the downtown center — certain disaster loomed.

“A lot of business owners were forced to make really quick decisions because of the [retrofit] timeline,” recalled Bill Hales, a San Luis Obispo business owner. “And if they couldn’t make the deadline, they would be forced to sell to someone who could afford to make the changes. And who is there, waiting in the wings? The big developers of downtown.”

The city’s top staffer, Chief Administrative Officer Ken Hampian, said the Copelands get no special treatment from officials. But he also said San Luis Obispo “is fortunate to have that kind of individual investing in it. But he doesn’t run this city.” Copeland also is chairman of the city’s Economic Development Board.

Kathi Main, then president of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, wrote in a 2002 bulletin for members, “Retrofitting buildings [is] on the minds of many business owners and property owners, [and] there are feelings of excitement and well as trepidation. While change most often creates concerns, it can also create new opportunities; opportunities to work on our businesses in areas that will bring out the uniqueness of downtown. [Then] it will continue to be a desirable shopping destination.”

Actual earthquake damage to San Luis Obispo properties was limited, unlike that which occurred in the North County where two women were killed in a building collapse, and much of the Paso Robles downtown core was affected. But officials in San Luis Obispo quickly joined in the jump to readiness, asserting that safety was the primary reason for examining the issue of retrofitting, and for the city council’s eventual order to that effect. That decision originally called for staged implementation of the completed retrofit by 2010 and 2017, a schedule that would have offered local business owners a longer period of time in which to make decisions about their future. But that deadline was amended by the council and rolled back to 2008.

The retrofit is coming with a high cost, both in dollars and in business mortality.

With the higher accompanying price tag of the retrofit are evolving higher rents, and the smaller, more vulnerable stores — often the most eclectic and unique — are being priced out. But those are not the only businesses to be adversely affected by the city’s map for downtown.

“Our downtown was vibrant and successful because of the business owners who take the risks every day,” Sean Fitzpatrick, a San Luis Obispo Realtor and owner of CornerStone Real Estate, wrote in 2006. Fitzpatrick was responding to an October 2006 “Viewpoint” in The Tribune penned by SLO chief Hampian and Community Development Director John Mandeville, in which they appeared to be opening the door to an increase in height limits in the downtown area. In that piece, the pair also argued that downtown SLO is successful because of property owners.

Not so, said Fitzpatrick, who insisted, “Every day, it’s the business owners who make the decision to stay in business rather than take jobs with guaranteed paychecks. The success of our downtown is not due to property owners, most of whom do not own downtown businesses.”

Fitzpatrick noted then that he and others were seeing “just too many longtime businesses moving out of the city.”

Fitzpatrick related conversations he’d had with what he calls “many” small business owners “who don’t have the time to speak out, are afraid of speaking out because of repercussions from their landlords, or don’t trust the Chamber of Commerce or the city enough to let them know how they feel about the situation. Now that I know that I was not the only person to be damaged by this [the city’s development and retrofit plans,” wrote Fitzpatrick, “I am speaking up.”

And he still is. “That’s what I was seeing in August 2006,” said Fitzpatrick this week. “What I have seen since then is that those people, those businesses, have now closed their doors. And there is no new retail coming into this town. Whatever this town was — vital, active, vibrant — it’s not happening now. And that’s very sad.”

Hampian told CalCoastNews that downtown San Luis Obispo “is a living, breathing thing, and as such, it changes. That works for some, and for some, it doesn’t.”

Hampian also said that downtown commerce is “hanging in there in a tough time,” which he suggested is an indication that the right decisions are being made.

The Ah Louis Store is an icon in SLO's Chinatown, which will be developed by the Copeland family. -- Photo by Daniel Blackburn

The Ah Louis Store is an icon in SLO's Chinatown, which will be developed by the Copeland family. — Photo by Daniel Blackburn

“I know a lot of people cherish the downtown area,” he added. “That’s why our controversies get a lot of attention.”

The process of retrofitting is having a significant impact on the downtown area and its merchants, Hampian agreed. “There is a lot of change going on downtown, and that can be alarming to some people.”

Innkeeper Hales and his wife are part owners of the Frog and Peach and The Library, two popular downtown saloons and eateries, and he manages a growing group of other bars and restaurants in the city. Hales wondered aloud if the city’s downtown area is headed toward a productive future.

“I really don’t think we are,” said Hales, suggesting instead that “we are headed in the direction of Santa Barbara — pretentious.”

Copeland apparently doesn’t share that notion. He told attendees at a 2005 SLO Downtown Association economic activity meeting that such a goal was a good thing.

“In Santa Barbara during their retrofit, they rebuilt to accommodate department stores downtown. And they are already feeling the impact,” he said. (Attempts to contact Copeland for comment, including messages left with his attorney, were unsuccessful.)

One of the impacts of Santa Barbara-style development is a higher rent scale, said Hales.

“The mom and pop businesses that made our downtown area so unique are being forced out by the high rent,” he noted. “Only the national chain stores can afford it. But a vital downtown needs a real mix of small businesses.”

Another business owner who has managed to survive in the newer, pricier atmosphere said the high rents are self-defeating, because “no one can really afford to pay five dollars a square foot for rent. They won’t even pay four-fifty.”

The ideal but elusive municipal aura remains the subject of debate among those who depend on downtown for a living. For years there has been discord among SLO business owners regarding preservation of the town’s character. While any definition of that quality might be arguable, some have tried. Just last year, Sunset Magazine gushed about San Luis Obispo: “Between colorful rolling hills, close-to-perfect climate, a bustling downtown culture, and the famous wineries and vineyards, San Luis Obispo is about as close to the ‘California lifestyle’ as you can get.”

For backers of Copeland and his particular vision of downtown San Luis Obispo, all that can be done to preserve its aesthetic and commercial appeal is being done.

The San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, of which longtime member Copeland is a previous president, is an ardent supporter of the Copelands. Its board believes that Copeland’s direction is right for the city.

“The Downtown Association … has looked to uphold ‘smart growth: principles for the community to ensure that the delicate balance of the downtown be preserved. This is our mission,” wrote Deborah Cash, association administrator, in a May 2002 memo to her board of directors.

In that memo, she wrote of the downtown district’s position as the city’s primary shopping area and its unique character while describing a perceived threat posed by Ernie Dalidio’s proposed Marketplace project south of the city. Cash suggested, “We don’t need two downtowns, and it’s not a question of competition.”

Downtown Association members were clear in their published bulletins that downtown’s future development path was to be determined in large part by the eventual outcome to the long, but to this point successful, battle against Dalidio and his development.

But before Dalidio’s plans were eventually buried, Cash wrote in the association’s April 2005 bulletin, “Whichever way it [the Dalidio Marketplace proposal] goes will determine how we’ll develop our work plans and strategy for the next five years. If the project fails, we’ll chart a course that focuses on dealing with retrofit and managing tenant mix….”

The Downtown Association was established in 1975 as an advisory board to the city council to address needs of downtown businesses. In 2006, after its lobbying status as a city panel was questioned, board members began considering a simple solution consisting of “revising its organizational structure… to be able to serve its members without constraint.”


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Member Opinions:

By: bobfromsanluis on 3/26/09

As an owner of a small business that was in a building that Tom Copeland bought, I too have an opinion of what is going on here. Tom came into my business with his commercial property manager and his architect to tell me that we was giving me my official eviction notice and that he was going to "give me" a sixty day notice (I had been in the building for almost fifteen years). When I asked him about coming back after the retrofit was completed, Tom told in a flat, matter-of-fact voice that I was welcome if I would pay the going "market rate" of $3.50 a square foot. When I mentioned that I was paying $1.25 a foot, he promptly exclaimed that the building was "way under market value", but did not explain which "market" he was comparing to. I asked him how he could justify such an increase since the property isn't on Higuera Street, didn't have any off-street parking or other features that could justify such an increase; his response? "The rate will be $3.50 a square foot. You can pay it or not, your choice." Nice. As far as the ownership of downtown properties are concerned, stand at the intersection of Higuera and Chorro; look up the block (towards the grade) and you can count on your fingers the number of independently owned stores. Look the other way and there are very few chain stores. I guess that the Copelands don't own everything, yet.

By: R.Hodin on 3/17/09

Sweetly ironic that the entrance to the proposed Chinatown hotel will face arguably the most hideous edifice to ever grace downtown San Luis Copelando — the city staff office/parking garage.

Not exactly a feather in stylist Mark Rawson's cap. Lets hope he digs a little deeper next time.

So much lip service to downtown housing, so much commercial lease space profit, so little time.

By: obispan on 3/14/09

I'll take Copeland's vision of Upper State Street over Hales' and Paul Brown's vision of Lower State, a string bars replete with violent assholes attracted from a wide surrounding area.

By: OLDMANOFSLO on 3/12/09


By: rack-n-blurb on 3/12/09

I'm not a big fan of the Copelands. They certainly wield considerable power and are close to controlling all the rents in downtown. Still, they do make nice buildings (thanks to Mark Rawlston) and I prefer this to what Clint and the Madonna Cartel are doing out on LOVR. They still want to build another giant box of soulless retail. I hope the vacancy of Circuit City and Linen and Things keeps them from ruining the west part of town.

By: JorgeEstrada on 3/12/09

Ya know I liked the good old days,the Obispo Theatre and when you could urinate between parked cars. Now we have fashion for the leeding bliberals. I have adjusted to frozen yogurt, intellectual coffee, white shirts and eye candy. I don't miss the barf.

By: mccdave on 3/12/09

Hurstinvestor is a vanishing breed: Copeland apologist. The Chinatown parking lot didn't need to be sold as a single parcel for the purpose of building another clustermall, and clearly if Copeland's project can be built there, other projects are possible. Copeland and Romero would like people to believe there was no other choice, but that's preposterous. The very concept of a single developer putting his stamp on an entire block should be anathema, since part of what makes a downtown like SLO interesting is that it's a quirky historical patchwork, to say nothing of the market power being handed to Copeland.

The people who've spoken on the record in this article are the tip of the iceberg and they're being circumspect for obvious reasons that are _the very point of this article_: Copeland has Monty Burns-like power here in Springfield/SLO, Smithers. One wonders whether anticompetitive concerns could be aired in situations like this.

The owner of McCarthy's pub didn't mince words:

By: hurstinvestor on 3/12/09


An oddly configured parking lot is not valuable to anyone except the owner of adjacent properties that can piece together a viable development. Was there someone else that wanted/offered to buy this lot? Infilling of urban underutilized sites is a stated goal of the City to discourage sprawl on the perimeter. Ultimately the City will likely realize more income from retail taxes than it will ever collect from parking meters.

Can you please share the "testimony from several people about his (Copeleand's) sh*tty tactics"? Of course the testimony will have more credibility if the testifiers identify themselves. Anonymous quotes and heresy don't constitute meaningful testimony.

By: mccdave on 3/11/09

hurstinvestor: "Without a coordinated effort under one owner, areas like the Downtown Center, Courtstreet and China Town could never gain enough consensus"

I agree that the Library and Frog & Peach aren't great examples of mom-and-pop businesses. (A date suggested going to the F&P and seemed disappointed that I didn't like the ambiance.)

But we don't owe Copeland much gratitude, and "coordinated effort under one owner" is almost a dictionary definition of monopoly or at least an anticompetitive level of ownership. It'd be unfair to say this if not for testimony from several people about his sh*tty tactics. Copeland and Rossi shouldn't be surprised at the resentment they generate.

By: DashRiprock on 3/11/09

I'm happy to have the top dog Copelands here in SLO over the top dog swindlers of the north county. They are just practicing free enterprise, and not robbing people of their life savings. Let's compare downtown SLO against downtown Atascadero, or even Paso for that matter….LOL, HaHaHa.

By: hurstinvestor on 3/11/09

Let me get this straight…… while the big box stores that were supposed to kill the downtown are failing, a local family steps up and invests millions of dollars in a downtown that is continues to be a place enjoyed by thousands? Are the Copelands somehow responsible for the City's seismic retrofit ordinance? I prefer well-designed "mom-and-pop" establishments any day over a chain store but even chain stores are finding this economy challenging. Without a coordinated effort under one owner, areas like the Downtown Center, Courtstreet and China Town could never gain enough consensus to improve the built or economic environment in these areas. While keeping things exactly as they are may be the goal of some, how do they think these areas can stay vital if they remain parking lots?

It is not surprising that the owner of the Frog and Peach and of the Library bar refers to improvements of adjacent properties as "pretentious". Take a look at these establishments and be your own judge . Is this the "mom and pop" quality and image we are seeking?

I work and own a property downtown (that I rent to a "mom and pop" store). My firsthand knowledge of this situation and the spin I see in this story makes me suspicious of the other stories on Cal Coast news.

By: Newsome on 3/11/09

X2 on mccdave's comment reminding us of the Copeland sweeheart deal on the parking lot.

By: Joe on 3/11/09

~~Hales, suggesting instead that “we are headed in the direction of Santa Barbara — pretentious.”~~

Oh dear sweet bullchit, SLO passed pretentious on the highway of self-entitlement many miles ago.

By: JorgeEstrada on 3/11/09

By example, this capitalist represents change that he funds and most people like.

Not everyone likes change yet thats seems to be the buzz word.

By: mccdave on 3/11/09

Yes, New Santa Barbara is what local moguls are building, not just downtown, and it's a tragedy.

Last month the Tribune ran architect's renderings of the Chinatown project, and while the designs are unobjectionable there was something missing: all the signs for national retail chains, and the sterile ambiance of faux-retro architecture. This is what will replace true vintage buildings with all their quirks, smells and memories. Copeland is forcing a maddeningly narrow vision on the downtown and cashing in on it. The ultimate irony is that this is continuing — as with Santa Margarita Ranch — even as that brand of capitalism has abruptly gone out of style.

But people are attracted to this stuff. The biggest crowds downtown are always found at the commercial clusters. Mission Plaza and the creek are usually lightly inhabited and largely by homeless and bohemians whose company is in some ways preferable to some of the freshly bathed humanoids found inside Pottery Barn. The Court Street project illustrates the ambiguities: it only replaced a parking lot, and the Court Street alley buzzes with people now, but they forced out McCarthy's pub and the whole thing feels like Paseo Nuevo mall in Santa Barbara (which actually kept its bar) — I don't really feel like lingering there. That Swiss bank UBS hoisted a sign there just as their fortunes soured is rich with irony; the airlock entryway for Pacific Capital Wealth Management is begging for graffiti.

Sean Fitzpatrick is being more circumspect here, but when I spoke to him just before Cornerstone Realty was forced to move, he was openly angry. (And I was just a stranger who'd wandered into their office to snap a photo of their old panoramic photograph of SLO.)

Good article. Dan shouldn't forget to mention the generous deal Copeland got from the city for the parking lot property.