San Luis Obispo Downtown in crisis

March 24, 2020

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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jebussaves

Everyone over 65 needs to sacrifice themselves to the Chinese Virus so we can get the economy rolling again.


ByteMaker

Calamity Cooper!


SloHeadInTheSand

Mr.Cooper…

We get it, the sky is falling.

But according to you there is about to be a boom in the plywood business.


blackjack

Words of wisdom from the West Coast Crew…..”put the pipe down”


mullyman

Well after reading your article I feel a lot better. ( NOT) Tell me how has mobilizing the National Guard helped this problem? Everything nowadays is blamed on climate change and the US has taken great steps to help improve things that may help but the majority of the other countries ( check Mexico out ) has not. Do you think if we do these things the climate over us will get better and say across the boarder it won’t Get a grip. I myself do not want a national guard type of military rule as i’m sure others don’t either. Just try to avoid other people and make sure you keep things sanitized. The real problem here is the shortage of a lot of every day items do to hoarding so we need to change something so there will be items available if this happens again.


mazin

Allan, what you forecast are commercial property bankruptcies.

What will be the result of a commercial property bankruptcy reorganization? The owner will receive loan re-amortization; owners and joint venture partners equity and returns will be reduced to say the least; tenants will be evicted; tenant business will be closed; local jobs lost; bankruptcy attorney fees and federal court costs will be imposed.

So instead, owners and joint venture partners, in conjunction with the lender, should offer commercial tenants a rent and pass through expense moratorium; owners negotiate a forbearance period and re-amortization with the bank. Everybody needs to be patient for their money. This way, the commercial property owner avoids extended vacancy, occupancy build up rent loss, leasing commissions, tenant improvement costs, and the mentioned bankruptcy attorney fees and federal court costs.

I would not do the downtown redesign just yet. Let’s see how this plays out. But we have been dodging pandemics for some time now.


mazin

Just thinking … taxes and fees, property and liability insurance, utilities, and property maintenance are the owners’ major expenses. Time to start considering, commercial real estate taxes and fees, business taxes and fees forbearance. California minimum corporate tax of $800 per year eliminate. Utility meter stand by charges on vacant space could be eliminated by the PUC. I know each cost is small but collectively? It does not make sense to run up costs to your employment and income generators.

Likewise, is there a way local public entities, together with private business organizations, can help property owners in their debt renegotiations with lenders? Develop a list of lenders from recorded Trust Deeds and approach with interested property owners? When major banks make businesses a loan they have a huge calculation on borrowers the entire business as it benefits the lender. It is a relationship right? So how to include the local government and business organizations “give input” in the relationship calculation? Just thinking.


panflash

Jeez, Allan, get a grip.


I have generally appreciated your observations on issues, but with this remarkably-overdone hysteria you have completely destroyed your credibility with me at least.


Wow.


Jorge Estrada

Very curious that China, the most populated country and is over the threshold on the virus curve and other much less populated countries are surpassing China’s death count? Could it be the face to face Chinese tipping of the head vs the Italian hugs and face cheek kisses of death be the reason? I hear my Mom blaming the Chinese and I tell her to not waste time blaming, stay isolated from the virus. She has made her deposit on a care facility but staying home is a far safer place now. She has help but now the help doesn’t want to leave their homes. This is going to get squirrelly very soon. Just think about it, money is not going to buy health and safety real soon. She won’t move, legally she can fight a take over so will we be able to go to her funeral? Yes, there are things to think about for many of us, the downtown is probably a very low priority about now but if not let’s talk about that discussion on Smart Growth.


Snoid

Jorge, I think we all need to question what comes out of China regarding this. Otherwise we might as well have somebody like Kim Jun Un broadcasting on CNN. They mislead about the outbreak,the severity, and now the lack of new cases Id guess. Its been said several times, but we really need to back off with the cheap low quality imports.Just to name a few we had 2007 pet food that killed untold animals with melamine, drywall that was contaminated with sulfur leading to respiratory problems and housing issues and copper pipe that was substandard making for home builder/owner nightmares and last but not least surely, numerous equipment/vehicle fires caused by Fuse’s that have nowhere near the correct amp capacity before opening and overloading systems causing damages and fires.


mazin

Snoid, I completely agree. Chinese products are suspect with poor or nonexistent quality control. One of the blessings in all this is China ruling party’s system has been exposed. Their numbers are bogus, as are the numbers from the Russian government.


Eyes Everywhere

An extreme position, for sure. 18 to 24 months? Highly doubtful. If it gets that long, there will be riots in the streets. This is why gun sales are increasing, especially in California. If people will stay at home and control the disease now, I think we’ll be in better shape by summer.


Francesca Bolognini

Agreed. But, looking at some of the other “comments”, it is clear that there are enough people who don’t get it and will be dragging things on for the rest of us until we have a complete disaster that they will then blame on those of us who made the effort to comply.


The reason China has gotten a handle on things is their totalitarian approach. They put armed guards in the streets to keep people from leaving their homes. I do not want to see that instituted here, but if people continue to ignore the situation and willfully ignore this opportunity to gain the upper hand, it will eventually come to that.


Witness Italy and Spain. They behaved the way that some are suggesting here, continuing to socialize and do “business as usual”. Their countries are currently totally screwed. We have ONE CHANCE to get this right.


As for being a “communist wet dream”, actually, it is a capitalist wet dream. Those who would increase their wealth at all costs, for the sake of greed, will be in place to buy up everything for next to nothing. Just as they did when we bailed out the banks instead of The People during the ’07 financial collapse. A true leader would be rallying all resources to protect the People and insure that we emerge from this situation as quickly and intact as possible. We are the engine of success, not the BILLIONAIRES who stand to get even more from this crisis, if left unchecked.


The more responsibly we behave now, the less resources and time it will take to get back to a functioning “normal”. Mr. Cooper is right about one thing for sure. This is not the last time nor the most severe pandemic we will see in the future. Due to the melting tundra in the north, many virus strains are reactivating after thousands of years. We have NO IMMUNITY to these diseases. Best we develop strong coping mechanisms NOW, rather than when they are rapidly destroying our lives as we know them.


Or listen the regime in Washington, which is run by people subsidized by big business and BILLIONAIRES, who stand to benefit from our suffering with bailouts and buy ups and are well poised to do so. Your call.