Matt Lehtonen

Engl 134

Saving Our Unique City

            My earliest memories of San Luis Obispo go all the way back to 1992 when my sister Megan got accepted to Cal Poly.  The first time I came to visit, I immediately fell in love with the city.  After growing up as a suburbanite in one of the many communities that surround the bustling city of Sacramento, I felt like I had entered an entirely different world when I came to the small-town atmosphere of San Luis.  When it came time to choose a college, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to go to Cal Poly.  This was all before I heard about the proposed San Luis Marketplace.

Now that I live here, I am beginning to realize even more about what this city has to offer.  I feel like I have a connection with everyone in San Luis.  I can’t even drive through downtown without seeing someone I know walking down the street.  Even my sister, who hasn’t lived here in over 8 years, seems to know someone in every store window she passes.  What would happen if these local stores that we all know and love were forced out of business?  Would San Luis Obispo maintain it’s one of a kind atmosphere?  No chance.  If developer William L. Bird gets permission to build the 650,000 square foot San Luis Marketplace on the Dalidio Family’s land, San Luis Obispo as we know it will never be the same.

The proposed site of the San Luis Marketplace, located off Highway 101 on Madonna Road, has been farmed by the Dalidio family since the early 1900’s.  This fertile plot of land has been handed down through three generations and is currently in the hands of Ernie Dalidio.  Although the land has been in the family for years and is nearly perfect for agriculture, Ernie has no desire to continue farming it.  When new commercial developments and housing tracts began to take root around Dalidio’s land, conflicts regarding land use became much more frequent.  Ernie even began to face lawsuits from local residents who were upset about the noise of farm machinery and the use of pesticides.  With these difficulties, Dalidio found it increasingly challenging to make a profit from his land and would much rather work his more lucrative farm in Cayucos.

The pressure had been building up for years, but it was in 1992 that Dalidio decided to make a deal with William Bird, the developer of the Central Coast Plaza, a large shopping mall built in 1985 and located adjacent to the Dalidio property.  It’s been 13 years since their idea was conceived and the city is still divided on the issue.  Supporters of the Marketplace, including Mayor Dave Romero, argue that building big-box stores will prevent San Luis from losing millions of dollars in tax revenue to Santa Maria every year.  Opponents of the Marketplace believe that it will ultimately cause the destruction of the downtown environment.

Even though the San Luis Obispo City Council already approved the Dalidio Marketplace project on July 6th, 2004, the citizens will get their chance to determine the final outcome.  The main organization against the development, Save San Luis Obispo, has undertaken a sequence of three referendum petitions to put the Marketplace before city voters.  These voters will have a chance to voice their opinions in the special election scheduled for April 26, 2005.  "Only a referendum could remove this huge cloud over the city's decision-making ability," said Orval Osborne, a city planning commissioner and City Council candidate.  "Rather than speculate about how many people support or oppose it, with a referendum, we would know the will of the voters with absolute clarity."

Backers of the Dalidio Marketplace bring up two main points regarding the new development.  Their first argument is that the community of San Luis Obispo loses approximately $200 million every year in retail sails to other Central Coast Cities.  The Dalidio Marketplace supporters claim that proposed Big-box stores like Lowe’s, Target and T.J. Maxx are anticipated to recapture a large portion of these lost revenues, up to $1.52 million.  The second argument of Marketplace enthusiasts is that this extra tax revenue can be used to build a new Highway 101 overpass at Prado Road.  This could potentially relieve some of the traffic congestion that is commonly found on the Los Osos Valley Road and Madonna Road overpasses.  In the words of the San Luis Marketplace website, “The best news regarding the Prado Road overpass is how it will be paid for - without new taxes. The Prado Road Overpass allows city residents to enjoy a $22 million road improvement project -- without the need for special bonds to fund it.”

These arguments can seem very appealing at first glance, but the truth comes out when we one dives a little deeper.  According to Christine Mulholland, the city’s policy is that new development pays its own way.  Of course the annual $1.52 million in new sales tax generated from the project each year would be a huge blessing for San Luis, but only half of it will actually go to the city.  With Bird fronting a large portion of the money needed for the Prado Road overpass, the other half of the revenue will go to him for a minimum of 30 years.  So much for new development paying its own way.

Aside from the money that will be given back to Bird, the city will also have to pay for 30 percent of the initial cost of the Prado overpass.  For this amount, the city will have to issue a 30 year bond.  The annual debt payment for this bond will be covered by the Transportation Impact Fees (TIF) the city receives each year, leaving nothing for the amelioration of current and upcoming traffic problems.  Los Osos Valley Road has become the established big-box commercial area of San Luis with Home Depot already there and a Costco on its way, but the overpass is too narrow and doesn’t allow for a large enough volume of traffic.  If the Dalidio Marketplace is built, there will be no money to fix the Los Osos Valley Overpass for the next 30 years.  Instead of spending all of this money on a new big-box marketplace, why not fix the one that we already have.  There’s plenty of room to build by Home Depot without sacrificing prime agriculture land and the city is getting 100 percent of the tax revenue from the stores going up in that area.

There are many reasons why the San Luis Marketplace is a bad idea, but the most important is that the introduction of these chain stores will severely damage the downtown environment.  According to a recent study (The Big Box Study Prepared for the Orange County Business Council) - although big-box stores may initially add retail sales, shopping options, new jobs and tax revenue, they eventually take away business from local stores, eliminate jobs from other businesses, and encourage the degradation of community “downtown” areas.  This study also states that “A new Target provided an average of 177 new jobs at the cost of 148 lost jobs.  However, the jobs gained were typically low wage/low benefit jobs where those which were lost had provided higher wages and more benefits.  As such low-income jobs become necessary, low-rent housing districts or slums develop to provide for these worker’s needs.”  If the Dalidio Marketplace is approved, it’s only a matter of time before we can expect to see San Luis Obispo change before our eyes.

San Luis isn’t the only example of this problem either.  Big-box stores have been forcing local merchants out of business all over America.  The state of Iowa lost 500 grocery stores and 300 building supply stores in a ten year period following the introduction of big-box type businesses.  Another perfect example happens to be right in our backyard.  Santa Maria was once a small-town city with a lovable downtown atmosphere.  But then in the mid-1970s, the historical center of the city was bulldozed to make way for the Town Center Mall.  Outlet and big-box stores began to pop up all over the freeway while Starbucks, Blockbuster, Subway and Kinkos found new homes in the downtown sector.  Now that these stores and the mall have lost their novelty, they’re struggling to keep customers and profits up.  Santa Maria is now trying to figure out what to do to revitalize their once vibrant downtown, but it’s already too late.

San Luis Obispo has a deep connection with everyone who has experienced what it has to offer and the enormous turnover of students coming through Cal Poly makes it an important place to more people each year.  The day the San Luis Marketplace is built, the atmosphere of our unique city will never be the same.  If you want to bring your children and grandchildren to a vibrant Thursday Night Market, and you don’t want to see your favorite local merchants disappear, then vote No on Measures A-05, B-05 and C-05.  Vote No on the Marketplace and we can keep our one of a kind city unique forever.



Works Cited

  2. “Marketplace opponents push for referendum in November”
  4. “To Save a Town, Why Did They Destroy It”
  5. “Big-Box Stores Leave More Than a Void”
  6. “Corporate Influence on SLO”
  7. “The Big Box Study Prepared for the Orange County Business Council: Executive Summary”