Cry for San Luis Obispo

May 17, 2019

Richard Schmidt


Once upon a time, writing about a place since destroyed by human greed, a guy wrote a chapter in a book called Thrive that claimed the burg San Luis Obispo was the happiest place, with the happiest people, in the state/nation/world.

That happiest place, author Dan Buettner wrote, was created from a non-descript redneck Anyplace USA town controlled by a “reactionary business establishment” through the deliberate efforts of some wise and public-spirited leaders, turning a drab town into a distinguished and happy place.

This was done, Buettner wrote, through good city planning. Under the 1970s leadership of Mayor Ken Schwartz and others, city hall’s “focus shifted away from optimizing the business environment to maintaining quality of life.” Through the tough work of good planning, the urban chaos of Anyplace USA was tamed and changed into something more pleasing; that more pleasing place, in turn, made people happier than persons living elsewhere.

But that was long, long ago – back in 2008 to 2011, long before the SLO Progressives/Chamber of Commerce stole city hall and reinstated the “reactionary business community’s” wishes as the city’s top priority.

How this sea-change plays out can be seen at the corner of Broad Street and Tank Farm Ford, one of the city’s busiest intersections where six lanes meet seven and tens of thousands of vehicles pass each day.

The intersection, visually, is incredibly important. It’s the gateway to the city for tourists arriving via the airport, with its ballyhooed non-stop service from Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s a lot of visitors whose first impression of the city is formed at this busy corner.

Way back in happy-town times, three of the four corners of raw land at the intersection developed, and on each corner, potential urban visual chaos was averted through thoughtful planning and abundant landscaping.

On one corner is the pedestrian-friendly Marigold Shopping Center, set back behind a landscaped storm water retention basin, providing a relaxing view northward at this anything-but-relaxing intersection.

Opposite Marigold is an office park, with street side greenery and buildings set back, again providing a relaxing green view beyond a huge expanse of asphalt street and moving and stopped vehicles.

Opposite the office park is a gas station and car wash, potentially a game-changer for this corner, but good planners saw its visual impact could be lessened with careful landscaping, including a vegetated roof atop the car wash, which when you realize what it is, provides a roof-for-thought moment for drivers waiting for the interminable traffic signal to change.

The fourth corner is still vacant land.

So what does city hall think is good there?

How about a strip mall?

Not just any strip mall, but the dumbest most chaotic type of strip mall subdivided into many lots, each with its own building and a parking around it, no pedestrian connection among the parts, an asphalt jungle of the most retrograde and chaotic sort.

And just to make things more incredible, one of those strip mall lots at this chaotic intersection will be for an old folks home, right next to Tank Farm Road, surrounded by asphalt and adjacent to a proposed grocery store’s loading dock.

So, the careful planning to create a nice entry to the city on the other three corners is to be sacrificed to an Anyplace USA strip mall.

But don’t worry: a strip mall isn’t permitted at this corner by the city’s planning regulations, so it can’t happen, can it?

Hah! In SLO Progressiveville whatever business wants can, should, and will, happen. Our “progressive” council almost all learned their civics from the Chamber of Commerce, so that’s how they think. Their lack of planning experience or knowledge is no hindrance to approving “progress” ideology is sufficient.

So, to get around the obvious bad planning a strip mall represents, “planning” staff not only recommended to the council they approve the strip mall, but that they amend the Airport Area Specific Plan, the General Plan’s Land Use Element, and the zoning code – all of which would, as currently written, prohibit the project. This is pejoratively called in planning circles “project-specific planning and zoning,” and among good planners, it’s a no-no.

Staff also recommended allowing the developer to build on 5,000 square feet of riparian area that’s supposed to be protected, as if developing a 10-acre site with care required this sort of exception to the city’s creek protection law.

This, dear readers, is what “planning” in SLO has descended to.

Long, long ago, had a project as out of line with adopted planning policies and laws as this been submitted, city planners would have said: sorry, it’s against the General Plan and zoning code, and we can’t support it.

Long, long ago planning reports to the council included actual analysis of a proposed project, describing ways it conforms to adopted planning policy, and ways it conflicts with them, offering perspective upon which decision makers could make an informed decision.

Today, that doesn’t happen. Decision makers get a one-sided advocacy report from staff, no negative information, no honest analysis, and often false facts.

In this case, false facts about the old folks home are salient examples of shoddy staff work and of their probable ignorance regarding what they write about. These errors might be amusing under other circumstances.

Staff describes the old folks strip mall place as an “assisted living” complex.

Sort of.

Here’s their project description: “The assisted living facility would include 111 assisted living units. Of these, approximately 50 to 60 percent are independent living, with the balance being assisted living, and 28 memory care beds.”

You got that? The way I read this, it’s not an assisted living complex. About 62 of the 111 units are “independent living,” 28 are “memory care” which is a euphemism for “nursing home,” which means a mere 21 are “assisted living.” Each of these terms has a legal definition, and they are not interchangeable. They describe different types of care, and the state enforces them.

The developer’s representative mischaracterized the old folks home as “assisted living,” probably to gain sympathy points with certain parties, and staff obligingly passed along that mischaracterization. Was this to help the project, or because staff is ignorant of old folks housing’s terminology? I don’t know, but neither is good.

Staff also advanced other ridiculousisms. For example, they stated this project would allow oldsters to “age in place.” That’s a gross misuse of this term, which actually means providing civic accommodation and supportive services to keep oldsters in their own homes instead of sending them to institutions such as the one proposed.

But we already know how much the city actually cares about supporting real “aging in place.” When the Anholm bikeway, which would remove more than 100 residential parking spaces needed by frail, old and disabled residents, those who suggested better accommodation were told by staff it would merely be “inconvenient” for the disabled to have to park 1,000 feet from their homes! Right.

As for life in this old folks home, I sure wouldn’t want to live in it. Noise and air pollution from the traffic, no place to go outside except asphalt roads and parking lots, cars driving the circumference of the place – how dismal could they make a place? To me it would feel more like prison than home.

All of this came very close to being approved by the city council May 7. In the midst of a public hearing, suddenly the city attorney and city manager had a confab, and pulled the item from the agenda. The city’s not being fully open about why, but it seems to have something to do with yet another staff screwup concerning a letter from an attorney threatening a lawsuit if the strip mall is approved, and that letter’s improper handling and distribution by staff.

The project’s not dead, just postponed.

This is what SLO Progressiveville has become – a place, unlike Buettner’s happiest place – that puts monetary values ahead of quality of life. If Buettner were to write an update he might explain the fall this way: “The town’s focus shifted away from maintaining quality of life to optimizing the business environment.”

Cry for San Luis Obispo.

Niles Q

General plans are not written in stone. Like all planning documents, they contain processes for amending them because there is no way such documents can be written to anticipate ALL possible proposals for developments that might be proposed. Property owners have a Right to the highest and best use of their property, paid for through taxes. Denying this could lead to a taking and cities want to avoid at all costs. That said, it’s up to the town leaders to steer appropriate development to appropriate locations, yes, guided by general plans and other documents. If residents are not happy about it, put your name on a ballot and challenge the decision makers.


Wow, my original comment about this piece of writing being “tripe” has been snubbed!

So much for first amendment rights—I know, I know, editorial prerogative. But, not sure the word “tripe” can be considered vulgar or offensive or inciting violence, so, you just don’t like what I’m saying. I mean, seriously, who reads this entire diatribe.

So, go ahead, find offense with “diatribe.” I dare you.


Excellent opinion piece Richard. The residents of SLO are just not tuned to the amount and quality of the land development that is going on and that is being proposed in the City. When I learned of the NWC Broad Street Mixed Use project (the one you reference in your opinion piece), I took a few minutes to review the scope of the project. Like you, being vaguely familiar with the Airport Area Specific Plan, I was surprised that an assisted living facility could be approved at the corner of Broad and Tank Farm. When I read the staff report for the May 7th meeting, I learned the same you described above, which is a wholesale revision of planning documents (Specific Plan and General Plan) to allow the project to move forward. I was also surprised that a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) was being used for environmental clearance, when the general plan was being updated at the same time. My immediate thought was that this is the kind of project approval you would see in development happy cities (the ones that aggressively seek revenue), but not in SLO.

By the way, the same approach is being proposed for the Avila Ranch project on Buckley Rd., which also sits on the same “Business Park” zoning designation as the NWC Broad Street Mixed Use project.

The question then is: Why even have advance planning documents (general plan, land use plan, specific plans) if the City will allow them to be revised to accommodate individual projects?

Keep up the good work Richard. Someone has to be on point and look out for the residents of SLO.


Since you asked…Whaaa…sniffle sniffle…..whaaa. Wow all better now.

You’re so right we wouldn’t want our tourists greeted by OLD people when they get off the plane. They’d never want to move here if they did.

BTW—some people “age out” of aging in place. They may find themselves widowed and alone, needing a facility like this. They may lose their ability to drive, but a location next to commerce would allow them to continue with a bit of freedom and independence. I think it is a good location for such a place.

Sounds like you’d prefer they be trapped in their home, alone, and lonely. That’s what aging in place means for some people.

Hell if it keeps more interlopers out I am all for lining the whole of Broad St. corridor with; even more old folks homes, Scamp dealerships, bingo parlors, and early bird specials at all you can eat buffets.


You must have.


I think the author makes valid points, but this is WHY editors exist. Nonetheless, if the point is that current SLO City leadership is drifting counter to what is in the citizens best interest, the answer is YES. Harmon is a peculiar distraction, the “identified child” in the dysfunctional family, serving to keep our eyes on her simple “weirdness”…but it is more calculated. Looks at the results, the “pave them over” Republicans did not viscerally destroy like these easily manipulated Progressives. Enough said.


Maybe the City of SLO will put a cannabis store in the strip mall so the “oldsters” can trip to the store, buy some herb and numb themselves out to escape the reality of living in a car park.

The leftists call themselves “progressives.” What are they “progressing” towards? Ugly buildings, inadequate parking, increased vehicle traffic, and panhandlers on every corner. If that is “progress” we need to change the definition in Webster’s dictionary.