San Luis Obispo: There's no place like it

By Mike Stover

A little girl stands atop San Luis Mountain on a startlingly clear Mother's Day and reaches toward the sun. Held in the careful grasp of her tiny fingers is a special message for a favorite grandmother no longer here to brush her hair or share her secrets.

A card attached to a ribbon, tied to a helium balloon. The granddaughter waves goodbye as her airmail package lurches skyward and disappears from sight.

It is a moment that sums up why so many people work so hard to stay in San Luis Obispo and why so many others wish they could. Love. Family. Nature. The intense green of spring giving way to a sky so blue. A benign cityscape that seems to understand the value of limits.

Of course, nothing is ever quite that perfect. On the walk down the mountain the silent flight of a hawk is replaced by the din of San Luis Obispo's unceasing passion: Debating how to save ourselves from ourselves.

Growth, jobs, water, parking, traffic, greenbelts, housing. As the century opens, the city has managed to fend off the perils of "either-or" and embrace the luxury of "and." It's not clear how long it can last. As always, the warning bells are sounding.

"Drought, drought, drought," cautions the mayor. "Affordable, affordable housing," calls the Chamber of Commerce. "Out of my way," yells the developer rushing to the permit window. "Save our Agricultural Resources," shouts the new urbanist trying to block his path.

For newcomers who moved here to work at Cal Poly or on the advice of, the issues seem almost comical. The very worst of SLO is a thousand times better than wherever they came from.

In some ways that's what frightens long-time residents more than anything — a steady lowering of the standards. Today Carl's Jr., tomorrow what? And the unsettling realization that progress sometimes involves painting over the pictures of the past.

The debate to decide who gets to hold the brush will play out endlessly during the coming year. Not since 1989 has so much new commercial development been underway or on the horizon.

Some city officials like to remind new residents that everything is happening according to plan, the General Plan approved amid intense debate five years ago. That's fine for the few hundred activists who participated at the time and the 10 or 20 newspaper readers whose eyes don't glaze over whenever they see the phrase "General Plan" in a headline. A vastly larger number were too busy with their lives to notice or didn't live here then.

In some cases it's taken the rumble of a bulldozer next door to get their attention. Some were ecstatic when they looked up. Some were furious. Many others don't mind so much as long as the city doesn't overdo it.

The ultimate focus group will convene Nov. 7 when voters elect three of the five City Council members. One of the issues already being debated is the wisdom of the past and how much, if any of it, needs to be undone.

It's sure to be classic San Luis Obispo — a life-or-death struggle pitting slow growth against very slow growth against nearly no growth.

With eight months to go, it might be a good time for all of us to walk up San Luis Mountain. To think about what life and death really mean and why this is such a special city to so many people. We may discover it's not about the number after the decimal point in the city's growth rate. Perhaps we'll find it's really about leaving behind people who care so much they still send up letters long after we're gone.

— Published March 2000 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune