Something Deeper Than Yes or No
The pastoral view before me was deceptive. Endless rows of young leafy cabbage, un-ripened tomatoes and other vibrant greens sprang up from a substrate so dark that the contrast resembled day and night. A familiar aroma of fresh broccoli brought to my mind memories of my mother’s cooking. For a moment, as my eyes struggled to find an end to the vast field stretched out in front of me, it felt as if I had been transported to somewhere distant and secluded, yet familiar. Bending down to run the fertile soil through my fingers, I began to slip further into the notion that I had somehow been transported to an idyllic backcountry farm. Only the abrasive sound of passing traffic kept me grounded as to my true location.
Floating around in Bill Bird’s imagination is something quite different. It is the image of a landscape dominated by monolithic herds of massive structures gathered upon a wondrously uniform plane of perfectly partitioned asphalt. Contained within these behemoth creatures are multitudes of indistinguishable aisles which offer anything a person could ever hope to consume, illuminated by endless rows of brilliant rectangular beacons dangling overhead. Some familiar sounding but nebulous melody plants itself in the shoppers’ psyches, lulling them away from their troubles and into a trancelike purchasing frenzy. The low prices and friendly service found in this utopia of consumption only compel the customers to keep filling their gleaming metallic Personal Shopping Vehicles (PSV) higher and higher. Bird awakens from the daydream and immediately a grin stretches its way across his face, for he knows that his vision is only one vote away from becoming a reality.
These contrasting visions actually take place upon the same property, which is currently the last bit of open land to be seen when entering the city of San Luis Obispo northbound on the 101 freeway. These 131 acres had been farmed by the Dalidio family for decades and the property was traditionally passed on from generation to generation, but in 1992 with the prospect of profits declining, Ernie Dalidio decided he’d had enough. His farm was being steadily being encroached upon by surrounding development. He saw little benefit in continuing a failing business when he could forge a lucrative deal to sell the property and focus on his more successful farming operations elsewhere. Bill Bird was just the man to offer Dalidio the deal he was looking for. The two came to an agreement for an undisclosed amount and Bird was then responsible for getting the plan through the city’s bureaucracy. More than a decade later, after much internal debate and despite protest from citizens and the farming community, the San Luis Obispo City Council approved the initial plans for the Marketplace.
The decision upset enough people to mobilize three petitions against the Marketplace, each garnering thousands of signatures, and ultimately bring about a democratic vote on the issue. On April 26, 2005, a Special Municipal Election to decide the fate of the Marketplace will be held. The ballot will be divided into three measures related to the proposed project. Measure A-05 asks whether or not the city should be allowed to annex the property and amend the General Plan Land Use Map by designating exact acreage for particular uses. B-05 amends the zoning regulations map and implements the General Plan. Finally there is Measure C-05 which supports the initial plans for development and, if approved, provides a Special Tax Reimbursement Agreement whereby 50 percent of defined excess sales tax revenue will go to the developer.
Mirroring the ballot’s over simplification of this issue into checkboxes marked “yes” or “no,” two starkly contrasting viewpoints have emerged in the debate: those who fully support Bird’s plans for the Marketplace and those who despise everything about it and hope to see the Dalidio property remain as agricultural land. There is no tepid, moderate voice in this debate and those who don’t have a strong opinion on the issue will likely be too apathetic to vote. Although it is reasonable to expect compromise as a result of most arguments, there will be no concession from either side of the Dalidio Marketplace debate. It is all or nothing.
Opponents of the Marketplace have chosen to base their argument on an emotional appeal, asserting that the election “is a battle for the Heart and Soul of San Luis Obispo.” They feel that the city’s charming downtown offers a unique quality of life that will be gravely threatened if the Marketplace is built. Hoping to find allies in those who similarly love their town, the detractors venomously criticize the Marketplace with language that could only persuade those who already agree.
Their approach is effective rhetorically but it lacks a substantial logical backing. The opponents find it appalling that “taxpayers will end up giving the Marketplace developer about $750,000 in sales taxes a year for 30 years, a siphon of some $22.5 million from city coffers that we need for police and fire service, repairing our potholed streets…etc.” They continually use this as an argument against the Marketplace but leave themselves vulnerable to attack in the proponents’ rebuttal. In total, the city could gain approximately $1.5 million annually in tax revenue from the Marketplace, but if the city desperately needs the $750,000 a year it would be giving to Bird, what would it do without the other half of the taxes that the Marketplace would bring to the city? The opponents do strengthen their logos with two studies which “show the Marketplace will cause significant, irreparable economic and social harm to the Downtown”  according to the Save San Luis Obispo website. The opposition’s manipulative rhetoric will undoubtedly convince many voters to blindly vote against the Marketplace; however, a substantial number of votes will be lost because their case isn’t logically convincing enough to persuade someone who supports the development.
Likewise, the proponents will have a difficult time finding allies in those who don’t already have something to gain financially from the Marketplace or who don’t have a strong desire for local access to stores like Target. They contend that although the property is beautiful, “wishful thinking won’t protect it…only City control will” but don’t provide any evidence that the county is actually courting Bird or other developers for advancement of the project. It is unlikely that the county would invest the millions needed for developing the site’s necessary utilities and surrounding infrastructure. The proponents assure voters that the Marketplace has been designed to minimize competition with Downtown vendors, however, despite the size differences both downtown and the Marketplace stores would be selling many of the same types of goods in direct competition with each other. They laud their own efforts at preservation, citing the 79 acres of land that the project keeps as open land “forever” but much of this open land would in actuality be used for roadways.
The proponents’ greatest gains come in the form of rebuttal, something their opponents don’t make good use of. Such is the case when they point out that San Luis Obispo’s downtown merchants are already competing with many big box stores in nearby Santa Maria, Arroyo Grande and elsewhere. “Our merchants have no hope of attracting shoppers,” they say, “if they are miles away, shopping in other towns.” The inclusion of rebuttals on the ballot benefits the pro-Marketplace camp but it is unlikely that their counter arguments will have much effect on voters who don’t already support the development.
Ultimately, the outcome of this special election won’t depend upon whose rhetoric is the most convincing. For personal reasons I am voting against the Marketplace, but if I were an undecided voter I don’t feel that either side’s argument would be convincing enough to guarantee my vote. Inclusion of a stronger logical argument might secure a few more voters for the opposition but the additional supporters wouldn’t be decisive for their cause. Although the negative portrayal of the Marketplace and the detriment it could cause downtown may crystallize much of the public opinion against this development, there remains a segment of the population who will vote yes on the measure regardless. Many people choose to see only the benefits of the modern Meccas of consumption like Target and Old Navy. They willingly blind themselves to the insidious problems of these establishments and will never see anything other than what they want to see. The opposition’s rhetoric won’t ever reach these people, and it is unclear what percentage of the population they represent. I tend to believe that more people live this way than do not, but on April 26 we will see if my pessimism was warranted.