It’s time for San Luis Obispo officials to commit to slow growth

January 15, 2021

Allan Cooper


As I’m writing this, the San Luis Obispo City Council will be conducting a virtual community forum to help “shape cohesive priorities for San Luis Obispo’s future”. Though many of the permanent residents of SLO will participate in good faith, it is clear that our constituency has been marginalized and that our priorities may not even make it to the “top ten.”

Permit me to explain. I arrived in San Luis Obispo in 1974. Back then I had a moniker for SLO…I called it “tidy town.” I was obviously out of the loop both politically and culturally when the only recommendation I could come up with for this town was to comment on its remarkable cleanliness. But over the ensuing 10 years, and after I had served a couple of stints on the Architect Review Committee followed by a stint on the Planning Commission, I observed how beautifully the street trees were maturing and how historical properties in our downtown, both commercial and residential, were being sensitively, lovingly restored.

One of my East Coast friends used to remark that SLO was “like Disneyland, except that it was real!” I even started bragging to out of towners about the weather. I’d say it only rains at night and that our clouds were never menacing. They were there simply for “decorative effect.” Of course, this was long before I had ever heard the term “atmospheric river.”

Yes, back then, SLO clearly seemed like a “Middle Kingdom” as it neither belonged to Southern California or Northern California. It was a place unto itself. The Chamber of Commerce was not committed, as it is today, to unbridled economic growth. The City Council didn’t then engage in “gaslighting” its residents by telling them that every budget decision they oversaw would be predicated on the residents’ priorities. Because we now know their decisions are being predicated on the priorities of students, speculators and tourists.

We had advisory bodies that would actually deny projects if the designs were not consistent with our clearly articulated community values. Back then, advisory bodies took their roles more seriously.

And then there were the SOAR initiatives, i.e., Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources. Yes, SLO was committed to not only protecting and expanding our greenbelt but we were also committed to “slow growth” through the use of a growth cap (which we’re no longer enforcing).

We were for a time at the forefront of “sustainable” and “smart” growth. Many of us were refugees of urban megalopolises and saw “small town” living as a plus. In fact, we felt that it was a “privilege” to live here. We were not inclined, as we are today, to “give away the store” when any developer came “knocking on our door.” Why? Because maximizing profits – both for the city, the chamber and for the developer – was not the underlying motive behind everything we did.

Most of us took a cut in our salaries when we moved here and we had no intention of getting rich nor did we expect out-of-town developers to get obscenely rich either. Little did we anticipate that those who followed, particularly in City Hall, had very different values.

Over time, everything was being “monetized.” Our open space was no longer seen as a deterrent to over development and a refuge for wildlife. It’s now being promoted as a draw for out of town, outdoor recreationalists who might hopefully spend money during their brief visits to SLO.

Our stores were no longer providing our residents with the necessity goods and services we needed. Now our stores (and bars) are simply there to increase tourism.

Our new housing was no longer addressing the housing needs of those who already live or work here. Instead, our mostly unaffordable new housing provides second and third home opportunities for wealthy out of towners and speculators.

And as Cal Poly’s enrollments grew, our council was finding that their prospects for re-election depended more and more on satisfying the perceived needs of the transient populations who spend only a few years here while attending school. The permanent residents of San Luis Obispo were slowly being disenfranchised.

What is the solution? How can we begin to seek out our own identity and become a town that remains independent of our southern neighbors? Bear in mind, this desire to break away from Southern California once came to the point where palm trees were left off our street tree lists simply because palms convey a “southern California look!”

The only solution that I can see is for our elected officials to commit to limited growth, thereby increasing our resiliency to survive climate change. This can be done through lowering our carbon footprint. I mean that “blue sky aspirations” (for example, everyone should stop driving and opt instead to ride bikes) are backed up with down-to-earth implementation.

This would involve the following steps: 1) linking population growth to available, limited resources including clean air and potable water; 2) raising the bar on new development so that it doesn’t add to our carbon footprint but actually reduces it; 3) defying arbitrary state mandates on housing growth even if this means court challenges or suffering the loss of state funding; 4) preserving our open space by putting an end to all future annexations, and 5) reorienting the city’s priorities so that they better mesh with the limited growth values of our more permanent residents.

So during the Jan. 14, budget priority discussions, the council might begin to back off on focusing on pocket book issues. Better yet, the council may  also begin to back off on addressing crowd-pleasing, faddish issues…the kinds of issues that are here today and gone tomorrow. The council might choose instead to listen to the residents who have been here a while as they have clearly demonstrated over time that they have the community’s best interests at heart.


Unfounded pension liability = progressive growth. They just don’t care about it’s residents as they have dug themselves a huge !$&@hole


That in fact the only goal of SLO City government.


Allan, we all know that “slow growth” means “no growth” to you. You’ve publicly claimed both that COVID requires a more sprawling city to advocate against planned development in the city’s interior and that the city must prevent sprawl in the name of “slow growth”, at the same time. If you had your way the city would have stopped any and all change in 1974. Sorry, things change, cities evolve, get over it.


Great article. Even though we are a two generation Cal Poly family, I have to say that Cal Poly has 10,000 too many students for the town, and has incredibly harmful effects in many areas–especially land use. It is criminal to approve the development that our council has with the overburdened water and transportation systems that exist.


Interesting article.

The first element in controlling growth is fiscal responsibility, controlling administrative and managerial salaries and benefits. You want to prepare for climate change? Have little civic debt and budgetary discipline.

Second point, how can you avoid creating an ocean of daily commuters? For example the South Coast of Santa Barbara County is invaded daily by its labor force from out of town. Sure Santa Barbara has controlled growth, but to no avail. The job growth still occurred resulting in more freeway commuters.

Finally, how do you control Cal Poly?

Downtown Bob

What exists now is simply an extension of the crap like SOAR brought to the table. Carbon neutral what a crock. My great grandfather worked at the roundhouse and my grandparents and parents were born here. The downtown has quit being anything other than a tourist trap with the closures of roads and limited parking. The replacement of butcher shops and clothes stores for real working citizens has turned into fancy crap no one but the high and mighty LA-its that think they could earn so much more down south but are content to hang in the quaint town and make much less. Truth is, we don’t like your liberal ideas, we don’t like you tracking your urban leftist garbage here, and we certainly did not appreciate your “work” on the architectural review board you did a pathetic job.


Well, you didn’t want the city to change or grow in any way, which pushed out working class citizens, which meant there was no need for any service downtown other than tourism and retail. Sorry your attempt to preserve the city as an artifact of your childhood nostalgia didn’t go as planned.

Downtown Bob

It changed in the name of tourism. It changed in the name of biking. It changed to make it quaint and not as functional for people, the idea of no drive in food so that gas wasn’t polluting simply made sprawl happen. Strolling around downtown isn’t in the cards for people that need to buy things with a purpose. The excessive retrofit requirements have made old buildings very expensive and drove traditional mom and pop stores away more business sense to build new and you can have customers access your store. All that is left are bars and high end clothing companies for woke young people with LA parents credit cards.


i came to slo in 2007 as a transplant wow 1974 i could just imagine. what a great article thanks for sharing!

mary margaret

This is an exceptional article! Thank you Mr. Cooper for so eloquently expressing what so many longtime residents have been thinking & talking about regarding San Luis Obispo. It’s sad to see the decline of a once sustainable, beautiful & functional city.


Especially in Los Osos! What part of “we got no water”, don’t they understand?


Wait a minute please, Shel. If you sat in at the quarterly basin meetings at the community center in 2018 and 2019, the purveyor charts displayed during those meetings showed a delightful increase in both well levels and salt water reversal towards the sea. That basin was/is in delightful hydrogeologic recovery.

Suddenly the public events center meetings are cancelled and some purveyor representatives talk “differently”. Those encouraging recovery charts of years back did not lie nor misinform.

That Los Osos groundwater basin is in recovery due to less pumping due to heroic community removal of lawns and use of water saving residential technology. Where the latest and recent misinformation comes from, and it’s purpose, is beyond me.


Good luck with the idea of slowing growth. As far as I can see, the people that run this city (Harmon and her city council) are willing to destroy any and all things that have made SLO nice… for power and money. All in the name of progressivism. Yeah they’re all “save the planet!” in public while gleefully approving mass destruction of it for the almighty $$$!! They’re all fakes and liars. Actions speak louder than words.