A Short History of Mission Plaza by Ken Schwartz

If you’ve ever visited Santa’s House, attended Concerts in the Plaza, or just meandered through beautiful Mission Plaza, you were the beneficiary of Kenneth Schwartz’ legacy. His impact on San Luis Obispo was significant. Read more about his life and accomplishments HERE.

This is but a short version of the long saga of how Mission Plaza came into being.

By: Ken Schwartz, City Planning Commissioner, 1959-1967, Mayor, 1969-1979

Many people visiting Mission Plaza for the first time are inclined to believe it has been there for a long, long time, perhaps since the founding days of the Mission with only the pavement patterns and landscape features changed from time to time. Not so! What the plaza is today didn’t exist prior to 1970. Before then, the public could only see San Luis Creek from either Broad Street Bridge or the parking lot adjacent to Berkemeyer’s Meat Market (now gone), or by trespassing over the Warden Bridge.

How did we get Mission Plaza? Students played a big role. Three San Luis Obispo Junior College students birthed the idea. It took a silly presentation mistake by three Cal Poly architecture students to galvanize the community into making the idea a reality.

In the late 1940s San Luis Obispo was not a very attractive town. To say that it was visually dull would be kind. Margaret Maxwell, an art teacher at the Junior College wanted to see the town more attractive. In 1949 she assigned one of her classes to go out into the community, find places where they might apply their art skills and return to class with beautification proposals. One three-man team of students returned with a proposal to close Monterey Street in front of the Mission and create a Mission Garden area. This proposal so enthused Miss Maxwell that she had her students present their idea to the Soroptomist Club of which she was a member. The Soroptomists became equally enthused and adopted the idea as a work project. And work they did, but even with the drive of Soroptomist Rose McKeen who became the first female mayoral candidate in the city’s history, the club was unable to muster enough City Council support to implement the project. The major stumbling block was the downtown business community who feared that the loss of curb parking spaces that would occur if Monterey Street were closed would be hurtful to business.

But this grand idea never quite died. Somewhere along the line the term Mission Gardens became Mission Plaza and a number of different proposals were made, some by private citizens, some by Cal Poly architecture classes, some by the business community and even one by a Councilman and his son. Finally one City Council was persuaded by the pressure of the Soroptomists and by the City Planning Commission (who had espoused the idea) to hire Smith and Williams, a South Pasadena architectural firm to develop a plan. It was a grand plan. Unfortunately, it was too grand for San Luis Obispo at the time. The Council turned to its Planning Director, Peter Chapman, and directed him to come up with a more modest plan – that plan became known as the Chapman Plan. Interestingly, all of these plans save for the businessman’s plan called for the closing of Monterey Street in front of the Mission.

The Council seemingly could not find the courage to close Monterey Street and a proposal submitted by Richard Taylor, a Santa Barbara landscape architect showed some little landscaped islands in front of the Mission and the street left open. It appeared that was going to be the adopted plan. Everyone working to close Monterey Street and create a plaza was pretty well exhausted.

It was at this time that three Cal Poly architecture students took on a Senior Project (undergraduate thesis) to take one more look at a Mission Plaza. America the Beautiful, an organization assisting students in such enterprises, offered $500 towards expenses providing the students could obtain a matching $500 locally. The students went to the City Council. The Council agreed to put up $500, but attached a condition. That condition was that the students must produce a plan with the Monterey Street left open; they could do more than one plan, but one plan must show the street open.

Because the question of a Mission Plaza had become so controversial, the City Council decided to hold a special afternoon session devoted specifically for the students’ presentation. When the afternoon arrived, the Council chambers were filled to standing room only. The students had built models of their proposals and displayed them in the foyer at the entrance to the chambers. The public saw these as they entered, but it is doubtful that council members saw the models in advance of the hearing.

Mayor Clell Welchell opened the meeting and invited the students to begin their presentation. The size of the audience was a bit intimidating, but they began explaining the details in their plans and renderings that were hung along one of the walls in full view of the attentive Council and audience.

As their presentation proceeded, it became clear that Mayor Whelchell was becoming very agitated. About five minutes into the presentation the Mayor gaveled the presentation to a halt and said to the students, “You haven’t done what we asked you to do”. The students and the audience were stunned. The Mayor went on, “We asked for a plan with Monterey Street left open. We want our money back”.

The students were obviously shaking in their boots but managed to blurt out that they had another plan to present and that second plan would show the street left open.

For reasons never made clear, the mayor had lost his cool and began arguing with the students. In the midst of this turmoil, George Andre, a member of a respected old time family and former city attorney, stood up and said to the students, “They can’t do this to you and if they try I will represent you at no cost”. The mayor got up and left the meeting. Everyone was aghast.

The students had naturally chosen to present the plan they favored first. It was this simple error, aided by Mayor Whelchell’s behavior that galvanized the city’s voters and led to the creation of Mission Plaza.

George Andre was in that audience because he was a member of the Mission Church and he wanted to learn what his Mission Plaza controversy was about and how his church might be affected. He came out of that meeting a convert; he saw advantages of having a Mission Plaza both for his church and for the city.

What followed was a gathering of George Andre, former City Councilman R.L. Graves, former Councilwoman Margaret McNeil (the city’s first councilwoman), former City Planning Commissioner Kenneth Schwartz, and attorney Richard Woods – a partner in the firm of Andre and Woods. In this case, the Andre was Peter Andre, George’s brother. The group determined to circulate an initiative referendum asking the City Council to close Monterey Street in order that a Mission Plaza might be built.

The Initiative Committee collected more than enough voter signatures to qualify to place the issue on a ballot. They took the initiative to the City Council and asked them to reconsider their action to keep Monterey Street open. The Council refused. It did agree to include the item on the ballot of the next election. That next election saw the voters support the closing of Monterey Street by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

Barricades were erected almost immediately. A month or so later, the Scarab (honorary) Architecture Fraternity designed and erected concrete planter boxes and seating in place of the barricades. This made for a more attractive street closure and lasted until time came to design the Mission Plaza itself. To his credit, Mayor Whelchell contributed to this closure work.

In the March 1969 Municipal election, Kenneth Schwartz was elected Mayor, and, Myron Graham, a long time advocate for the Mission Plaza, was elected Councilman. The political scale was tipped. When the question of moving forward with the design and construction of Mission Plaza, Council Members were unanimous in their support.

Richard Taylor, the Santa Barbara landscape architect was engaged to redesign his former abbreviated plan. He readily agreed to do so as the larger vision had much more appeal for him. Taylor’s new plan was enthusiastically endorsed. His plan was divided into two construction phases. The first phase would include the area encompassed by the Mission, Chorro Street, San Luis Creek, and the Warden Bridge. The second phase was contingent on citizen reactions to the first phase and the Council’s willingness to budget for the construction costs. Obviously the public liked the results of phase one and phase two followed without dissent. If you look closely, you will see that Monterey Street concrete paving became a retaining wall in the creek area.

Phase one construction started in 1970. Madonna Construction was the contractor. It should be said here that both phases were totally financed from the City’s general funds. No special tax was assessed nor were any grant moneys used – for one thing, State and Federal grants for such projects were rare in that era. The designs were therefore “bare bone”. In the first phase, all of the plant materials were donated – and in many cases, planted – by individuals, families, youth groups and service organizations. These “buy-ins” helped to establish citizen ownership and pride in the Plaza.

Embellishments such as the flagpoles, the arbor, the Bear and Indian Youth sculptures, and the Bicentennial Flag Plaza would come later as would the amphitheater seating and stage, and the terrace below the “arbor terrace”. On the Higuera Street side of the creek the brick walkway-terrace was also an added embellishment. It sits on an easement granted by the property owners on that side. The easement measures (generally) from the centerline of the creek, up the creek bank to the shoulder and then 8 feet in from the shoulder. This easement was granted in perpetuity. The City owns only one parcel of land on this side of the creek. That parcel is the patio area behind the Mission Mall building.

Designing Mission Plaza was not a simple task. The design had to consider the needs of the Mission Church to allow traditional church ceremonies such a Holy day processionals, weddings and funerals to function properly. The design also had to acknowledge property ownerships and access rights of those properties. The Warden Bridge (which is a private bridge) had to allow vehicular access to properties facing Higuera Street. The Plaza design also had to recognize the need for access by emergency vehicles: fire, police, and ambulances. Even so, the final design gave the pedestrian priority wherever possible. San Luis Creek was also opened to the public. The design has been proven successful in providing pathways, small quiet seating places, comfortable outdoor eating areas. It provides an amphitheater for music, poetry, and speech giving and a large open plaza for public gatherings of all types. It provides a more historical setting for our Mission and access to the nearby Art Center, County Historical Museum and Downtown.

Mission Plaza has provided San Luis Obispo with a heart and center for all time.