Is San Luis Obispo’s downtown losing its allure?

January 27, 2022


For years, travel writers have produced glowing reviews of San Luis Obispo’s downtown, at times referred to as the best downtown in the country. But that was before reduced parking, roadway reconfigurations and store closures.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article titled, “Anything’s better than empty: This store in a struggling California downtown is managing to thrive,” paints a picture of a decaying downtown where businesses struggle to stay open. The article touts the ability of Boo Boo Records to thrive while the downtown decays.

“Over the past decade, businesses in San Luis Obispo have struggled to stay afloat, resulting in long-time local retailers and restaurants — many beloved for generations — shuttering, one after the next,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle article. “The onset of industrial decay is set off by nearby Bishop Peak, towering and green — courtesy of the late-December rain.”

The CEO of Downtown SLO, Bettina Swigger, disagrees with the article noting that 28 new businesses opened in the downtown in 2021.

“The downtown is vibrant,” Swigger said. “I do not agree with the article, that the downtown is in decline.”

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My wife and I visit downtown infrequently. I’m a senior citizen, parking is a hassle, and the general ambiance is increasingly akin to LA rather than to the SLO we used to love. The other correspondents have listed all the reasons for downtown degradation. But then, you get what you elect “‘good and hard,” as Mencken put it.

Losing? Try LOST! Victoria’s Secret was the beginning of the end. And greed. Who is attending the next Alex Madonna fashion show?!

U.S. GDP grew by 5.7% in 2021, the highest rate in 37 years. California’s GDP grew by 6.9%. So any insinuation that the economy is somehow faltering, is simply absurd. I absolutely hate these CCN articles that have questions for headlines, as if they have any basis in fact.

I was very fortunate to have a very small business in downtown San Luis for 15 years; my landlord, Jay Stream, owned the building outright, I believe, and didn’t overcharge for his units. I even asked him once why he kept his rates low, and he told me he would rather have his units occupied and open rather than sitting vacant for months at a time producing no revenue at all. When he passed away and his widow was faced with the city demanding to have the building retrofitted for seismic safety concerns, she sold to the Copelands. Tom came into my shop, informed me the building was his now, and that I and a few others would have to move out so the retrofit could be done. I asked him about coming back after it was completed, he told me sure, if I was willing to pay “market rate”, asking him what that was and being informed that my rent would go up almost 4 times what I had been paying, I knew it was time to leave. That was 2009; at that time, if one stood at the intersection of Chorro and Higuera, looking down towards the Creamery, most of those buildings were rented by individuals running their own private owned businesses, looking the other direction towards Santa Rosa street, most, but not all of the businesses were more of a corporate owned operation (Victoria’s Secret, Ross, Papyrus, the Apple Store, etc.). I knew of one business owner who tried in vain to rent from Copelands, had a sound business plan, more than 5 years experience operating in SLO, but they wouldn’t rent to him simply because he was not a corporation with deep pockets, willing to sign a ten year lease.

A lot of the comments here focus on the homeless population, I agree they do not make for a great experience when encountered in a confrontational manner, and the hue and cry of lack of parking has always been an issue, even back in the early ’00s. I’ve ridden my bike downtown recently, and I’ve driven through as well- the new bike lanes on Higuera were only added after the dining platforms were allowed due to Covid restrictions, and it seems like most of the complaints here are just gripping about change. To me, the biggest change was the addition of the tall buildings, which reduced parking a bit (the old lot off of Broad, across from Big Sky is what I mean). I honestly think that the direction the city has taken in allowing the higher buildings is just another grab at revenue for the city since we still have a huge pension liability obligation.

I really don’t have an answer as to how more local, independent businesses could try their hand at retail operations, but I do know there are a lot of factors to consider; online competition is fierce, if you don’t have some “hook” that makes your retail establishment desirable to go into, you face enormous competition from online retailers. If your business plan doesn’t include paying a living wage for employees, as minimum wage levels increase, your profit margins will continue to shrink, especially if faced with ever increasing rents/leases. Perhaps whoever owns the building vacated by the move by Ross might consider a “mall” type operation there, allowing small shops to share the interior space and have a somewhat more reasonable rent situation.

You hit it on the nail-head! The Copeland family got greedy and had to facilitate employment for their adult children and their families by having them open skateboard and sandwich shops.