The demise of the happiest place on Earth

November 6, 2023
T. Keith Gurnee

T. Keith Gurnee


In 2011, just 12 short years ago, Oprah Winfrey went on national television to pronounce that San Luis Obispo had become “The Happiest Place in North America.” SLO no longer deserves that honor.

While approving ludicrous bike paths and downtown parking rate hikes,  the SLO City Council has refused to listen to the people these actions affect the most.

This Tuesday night, the council will be taking up the explosive issue of their egregious increases in parking rates and their wonky changes to its parking policies recently enacted for downtown SLO. Ask downtown business owners, employees, and customers who have long enjoyed what was once a great downtown, how they feel about those fees and their impacts on downtown. It should be a fascinating meeting.

But also consider those who live in San Luis Obispo’s residential neighborhoods with protected bike lanes, the loss of hundreds of on-street parking spaces, and the diminishment of their once great livability, functionality, and character.

Do so, and you’ll find out that they’re mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore!

How did this happen?

It started with the city elections of 2016 when self-styled “Progressives” like former Mayor Heidi Harmon, and councilmembers Andy Pease and Aaron Gomez joined Councilmember Dan Revoire to take over City Hall. And it continues to this day with those who have been elected to the council since then.

Since then, fueled by a huge infusion of cash from Measure G-20 that was passed by the voters in 2020, the council has been splurging millions and millions of taxpayer dollars on frivolous and unnecessary projects that are demeaning our community, our downtown, and our neighborhoods.

Measure G-20 was sold to city voters as one that would soak the tourists instead of the locals. But with its recent actions, City Hall has decided to soak the locals while developing an even bigger appetite for our money.

Instead of living within its means, the council’s actions to increase seemingly all of its fees is nothing more than another hidden tax increase negatively impacting what has been a downtown that was once the envy of small towns throughout California. The rate of downtown business closures is accelerating, restaurants are closing their doors, vacancies are increasing, and residents are voting with their feet to patronize other venues that don’t have public parking fees.

Then consider the employees of downtown businesses who have to sacrifice that much more of their limited income on parking. It’s just a matter of time before businesses start losing their employees or having to pay them more to compensate for the rate increases, making it more expensive for customers while making their businesses even tougher to pencil out.

Meanwhile, where are the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Association on this issue? They should be all over it. It’s been the Chamber’s Leadership Program that has evolved into a political factory of City Council candidates who continue to be elected to our council while giving the chamber hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in compensation. Could the chamber itself be complicit in destroying the vitality and viability of what was once a great downtown? It sure looks that way.

Protected bike lanes?

The goofy and outrageously expensive bikeways that the city has been ramming through town is little more than a bad joke to most residents. The tortured bikeways along Higuera and Marsh streets have reduced them to two travel lanes that often become one lane roads when delivery trucks are unloading. The bikeways along Madonna Road, the post office, and the entrance to Costco make no sense (after all, how many people ride their bikes to go shopping at Costco?). The fiscal irresponsibility of continuing to push these projects is beyond the pale.

But it is what these exclusive bicycle paths are doing to single-family neighborhoods and the city’s budget that really takes the cake.

For example, the Anholm Bikeway along North Broad and North Chorro streets was originally estimated to cost a little over $1 million. Then it jumped to $3 million when the city went out to bid. When the bids came in, it was over $6 million and is likely to end up over $7 million.

Even the city commission appointed to oversee the proper expenditure of Measure G-20 funds recommended against that expenditure. Nonetheless, the Council overrode that recommendation and awarded the bid.

The chaos of its construction is now there for all to see. Those who have traveled down Broad and Chorro streets today can readily witness what amounts to the publicly sponsored vandalism of a beautiful neighborhood. Our neighbor’s pleas to reconsider this project were quickly ignored, only to leave us shaking our heads.

Just last month, City Manager Derek Johnson spoke to a meeting of Residents for Quality Neighborhoods, an organization formed in the early 1970s to protect the livability of our residential neighborhoods. He  revealed that 3% of the city’s population uses these bike paths.

How is it that our city is spending so much money for 3% of the population while ignoring 97% of the people who don’t use them? Is that democratic?

Meanwhile, this City Council remains blithely ignorant of the consequences of new state laws allowing densification of single-family neighborhoods and the state’s prohibition preventing cities from requiring off-street parking in support of higher densities and ADUs. With protected bike lanes, the elimination of on-street parking in residential neighborhoods will destroy the functionality and livability of our residential neighborhoods.

The city’s propaganda machine

Critical to keeping these bad decisions afloat has been the City’s Ministry of Propaganda’s incessant boosterism in support of these expenditures. In regularly publishing and distributing its “SLO in Motion” newsletter with updates and photos on project “progress,” here are some of the slanted words being used to promote these projects and, in reaction, the real truth behind them:

a. “SLO in Motion: Headed in the Right Direction.” Correction: Headed in the wrong direction.

b. “We are excited to update you on the latest developments in our ongoing neighborhood enhancement projects…,” Correction: These projects aren’t “enhancing our neighborhoods,” they’re destroying them.

c. “… making our cities safer, more accessible, and better connected.” Correction: Wrong. The double bike lanes on the west side of Chorro Street passes by 16 driveways, requiring residents to back up across a two-lane bikeway to get to the travel lanes. It’s is a major accident waiting to happen.

d. “Why These Projects Matter… We want to emphasize their significance in shaping the future and protecting the city of San Luis Obispo.” Correction: If anything, the city has opened itself to greater liabilities, dangers, and challenges.

e. “Each project is community driven…” Correction: Not! These unnecessary and expensive bike paths are driven by a narrow, selfish, ideological special interest group that holds sway over our City Council.

f. “… and essential to our city’s future.” Correction: Not! These “improvements” are utterly unnecessary.

What of the real future?

Will we ever again be called “The happiest place in North America”? Not likely. But if we can, it will take great public resolve to do the following things:

1. Roll back the recently approved parking fee increases and policies to their previously levels, stop the research into future parking fee increases, and consider reduced rates for employees working in the downtown.

2. Halt any further protected bike lane construction through residential neighborhoods and plan to restore on-street parking in the downtown and the Anholm neighborhood.

3. Disband the city’s propaganda machine.

4. And most importantly, find and strongly support new candidates who will bring common sense, fiscal responsibility, and a commitment to protect our neighborhoods to run for City Council.

Indeed, it’s time we take back our town!


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Hear, hear!! This nonsense can be stopped, and then some of it reversed. Come on, citizens— call, write, go to meetings, vote!

My opinion goes like this: The Incorporated City of San Luis Obispo has become noticeably focused on profits, the business of side of any corporation. There is the complaint that city employees can’t work and live in their city, so the fix for this excuse equates to a better business model. The citizens of SLO will soon learn that they are only share holders in this business of cityhood, with no dividends. Surely they have property rights but who can afford to defend the city’s adverse takings? My guess is that our seniors don’t have years of litigation money set aside for that boondoggle (our youth have different priorities). That said Cal Poly has been evolving into a “privileged class” thence it’s partner, The City of San Luis Obispo.

SLO has certainly lost its innocence, and charm. That’s what happens when you put short-sighted, self-indulgent people in city government. The difficulty of navigating through downtown, and the egregious building/housing projects without the infrastructure to support them, makes SLO an no-go. We used to love going downtown for meals and shopping – it was special, relaxed and fun. Now, we steer clear. The upside is that many feel this way and are spending more of their money in their home towns like AG or Paso. Speaking of, Paso is in the early stages of repeating SLO’s folly, and if common sense doesn’t enter the city government fray soon, we will have to find other places to frequent…

The use of an Oprah comment to promote, debate, and criticize aspects and issues of the community are played out. “Happiest” is a horrible metric for comparison. Happy or joyed is an emotional state of human being, not a contest.

That aside, this is some nimby fueled criticism against the town’s decades long development in bike and pedestrian accessibility and defined space of use. Efforts that have made an impact on safe and efficient commuting in the community.

You name community members that have stepped into roles of responsibility and representation for which I believe the community has benefited. Mr. Rivoire was a solution-minded pragmatist as a council member who was grounded on local issues and unattached to national politics cliches, talking points, and partisanship. I too believe Mrs. Harmon and Mr. Gomez hold values in civics that I value in the community members that run and serve our local government purposes.

I’m sure Mr. Gurnee’s editorial may resonate with some like catharsis to static around debate on social issues, but this isn’t where people turn for solutions to increasing traffic and bicycle ridership, they turn to people like the “progressives” mentioned.

Very well said and sadly so true. Let’s fix this bs. Time to clean house and bring in some common sense. It will take a lot to turn this ship, but it can be done. Recall time.