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Berkeley Studies S.L. Obispo’s Downtown Creek

Tuesday May 25, 2004

Richard Register and other Berkeley proponents of daylighting Strawberry Creek have come to San Luis Obispo so often that they’re “becoming a new type of economic tourism,” quipped San Luis Obispo City Councilmember Kenneth Schwartz. 

Accompanied by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, Councilmember Dona Spring, Public Works Director Rene Cardineaux, and Downtown Berkeley Association Executive Director Deborah Bahdia, a contingent of activists set out Thursday on an overnight fact-finding trip to the Central Coast city. 

Organized by Register and Kirsten Miller of Berkeley’s EcoCity Builders, the trip focused on the history and impact of Mission Plaza, the project that revitalized the creek flowing through the heart of San Luis Obispo. 

Register, Miller and other Berkeley activists are calling on the City of Berkeley and University of California to “daylight” a block-long segment of Strawberry Creek along Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue as part of UC’s plans for a high-rise hotel/convention center and museum complex that would extended from Center to University Avenue between Shattuck and Oxford. 

Though the participants were scheduled to leave Oakland by train at 8:50 a.m. Thursday, an accident and other delays had the train running hours late. 

Amtrak lobbyist Tyrone Bland and the line’s two top West Coast executives filled nearly an hour of the delay with explanations of why Union Pacific—which owns the coastal rail lines and controls scheduling—seems intent on sinking passenger service. Vice President Dick Cheney’s name was invoked several times, never in a flattering way. 

When the excursion finally departed—minus three members in wheelchairs, including Spring—it was two hours late and in a Greyhound bus, much to the disappointment of the majority of participants who were eager to ride the rails. 

The next snafu came in an unscheduled stop for lunch in Salinas, when the driver got lost on the way to the bus station and wound up circling the city. 

The bus finally arrived at its destination in late afternoon. The train arrived seven hours later, so Spring and her traveling companions missed the introductory talks by San Luis Obispo Mayor George Romero and former mayor and present Councilmember Schwartz. 

Unlike Strawberry Creek, San Luis Creek didn’t run through an underground culvert through the section that became Mission Plaza. However, the San Luis Obispo project did entail tearing up and closing one block of heavily-traveled Monterey Street—just as Register and his allies propose for the block of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

The university has already turned thumbs down on funding the millions needed for the creek daylighting, and Mayor Bates has indicated a reluctance to part with the cash at a time when the city is already cutting back on services and salaries. 

Romero, Schwartz, San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce President Dave Garth, and a host of downtown merchants all praised the Mission Plaza project as a major factor in the revitalization on a struggling downtown riddled with vacant storefronts. 

“We have no vacancies downtown now,” Garth said. “Thirty years ago we had a 60 percent vacancy rate, and the creek and plaza area was basically a dump, filled with old tires, dead bodies and whatever anyone wanted to throw into it.” 

Creating the Plaza was a decades’ long effort in the face of initial opposition from elected officials and the business community. 

The original inspiration came in 1949 when a San Luis Obispo Junior College art teacher assigned students to come up with ways of beautifying the downtown. Three of her students collaborated on a proposal that called for closing off Monterey Street in front of the Spanish Colonial mission and creating a public garden. 

The local Soroptomists championed the notion, but failed to muster the necessary City Council support. 

Then three architecture students at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, took on the project, funded by $500 matching grants from America the Beautiful and the City Council—which insisted that they come up with at least one version that didn’t call for street closure. 

When the students started airing the first of their two plans—which called for a closure—an angry mayor gaveled the session to a close and demanded the students return their city funding. “He can’t do that,” called out a former city attorney, who then offered to represent the students for free. 

Then Schwartz decided to run for mayor, making support of the plaza a major plank in his campaign, and a citizens group formed to organize a referendum campaign calling for street closure. The referendum carried by a landslide, and soon afterward the election of Schwartz and another pro-plaza council candidate created a favorable majority. 

The first phase of construction began in 1970, with Alex Madonna—creator of the town’s famed Madonna Inn—as the contractor. A good portion of both the materials and the labor was donated, and Madonna kept costs well below prevailing rates. Even the concrete pavement was chopped into blocks and used to line sensitive areas of the creek bank. 

By the time major construction was completed, the city had been able to meet all costs out of the general fund, without the need for a bond issue or other special assessments. 

The surrounding downtown streets are filled with shops, mostly locally owned. A weekly Thursday night Farmers Market on nearby Higuera Street—originally created as a roadblock to a teenage “cruise night”—draws massive crowds, especially to the numerous stands featuring barbecued ribs, chicken, turkey legs and sausage. 

Romero and San Luis Obispo Economic Development coordinator Shelley Stanwick said one key ingredient in the downtown success story has been a concerted effort to encourage pedestrian traffic downtown along with ample public parking provided around the periphery. 

“The city is constantly providing more parking,” Romero said. 

“Traffic keeps the vitality and life downtown,” said designer Pierre Rademaker, chair of the city’s Parking and Access Task Force. 

Participants in the two-day trip came away impressed. “This is the cleanest downtown I’ve ever seen,” said Mayor Bates. “It’s quite impressive,” said Spring. 

All the participants save Councilmember Spring were able to catch Amtrak for the homeward leg Friday. A minor breakdown had kept the delay to under two hours. 

Spring decided to extend her trip over the weekend, her first extended out-of-town stay in years. ª