By: Dominic Tartaglia, Executive Director
Pierre Rademaker is not only a good friend of mine but a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the history of Downtown San Luis Obispo. On a March afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting with Pierre in his office (located in the historic Johnson Building) while he provided an insider’s perspective on the Downtown Concept Plan. While sitting in his office I could not help but notice that this was the perfect setting to hear the story of such a unique document.
There are several upstairs offices in the Johnson Building but Rademaker has the corner office and the panoramic view that goes with it. When you enter his office one of the most stunning features is an arch in the middle of the room and numerous designs, sketches and campaign button logos contrast the exposed brick walls. This office is certainly dedicated to preserving history and on that day I learned the arch was a promise to Les Neman (owner of the building until his recent passing) to preserve the historic character of this building. The only thing that can trump the beauty of the design of this office is the view out the windows that overlook the corner of Chorro and Higuera Streets. I could not help but look out the window as Rademaker recounted the Downtown Concept Plan story, there was just too much excitement with people and vehicles bustling about below. As the conversation progressed I imagined a sea of characters walking through Downtown as it was 20 years ago and what they might look like in the future.
As the story goes, it was in a late 80’s Parking and Access Committee meeting at Sebastian’s that Ken Schwartz displayed a hand drawn plan and explained the need for a master plan for Downtown. As the conversation progressed, the City Council asked City Manager John Dunn to build a team that would draft a master plan for the Downtown area with the intention of combatting the recession and advancing various stalled projects. Downtown at this time had just one parking structure on Palm Street, numerous traffic circulation issues and very different storefronts than we see today. An official design team was formed in the early 90’s and consisted of Chuck Crotser, Rod Levin, Andrew Merriam, Ken Schwartz, and of course Pierre Rademaker; their objective was to provide a direction for future development and in the words of Rademaker, “Inspire faith in the future of Downtown.”
Eventually, a double-sided and over-sized poster was the final product after many hours of discussion and drafting. Rademaker explained how vastly different the project was in those days, it was a day in which the team rolled up their sleeves and got to work with less community involvement than we see today. It was not so much a process of excluding community participation but driven by the fact that the community did not care about Downtown in the same way they do today. Around this time there were plans to relocate the county government buildings out of Downtown and this team drafted a plan that kept the government buildings and courthouse Downtown. When pressed on this subject further, Rademaker responded that, “If there was just one great success from the original Concept Plan it would be keeping the government center Downtown, it was a total win.” He then proceeds to list off a list of folks involved with the process as if flipping through a mental Rolodex.
As the discussion continued we got a bit off track and our chat turned into a slideshow of Downtown buildings and the physical changes that they endured as our community cycled through economic cycles. Cycles that included the industrial revolution, Great Depression and post war eras and the eventual move away from urban centers that was the demise of Main Street America. While we were not talking about the Concept Plan per se, the conversation affirmed careful planning of urban centers with historical perspective is what set our Downtown apart from cities that let theirs fail. It certainly inspired projects that secured a future for Downtown.
Eventually, the discussion wandered into the topic of building moratoriums and the implication that several groups are advocating for them. Rademaker pointed out that this was a big difference from the first plan, the concept of not building was not an issue then. Although, he chuckles as he recounts the small uproar when Sunshine Donuts was replaced by the County Government Center. While today there is a contingent of residents pleading for a building moratorium, a building moratorium in the 90’s and 2000’s would have likely lead to the death of Downtown San Luis Obispo as we know it. SLO’s unreinforced masonry building retrofit program initiated building improvements and expansions that likely would not have occurred otherwise. As a result, many storefronts were updated and are reminiscent of their original architecture.
Those unique buildings keep our district true to its Main Street American roots and contrast the plaster covered shells of the shopping malls that once threatened our existence.
By the end of our conversation I came to a very clear realization. To see a man with so much love for a place is an extremely powerful thing. John Muir had great passion for the Sierras and Pierre shares that passion for Downtown SLO. Those passions are what have rallied countless people behind these men to preserve special places for the enjoyment of generations to come.
If you would like to participate in the Downtown Concept Plan, you can visit the www.SLOCity.org/downtown. The website has up-to-date information, a schedule of meetings and an option to elect to receive eNotifications.