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Dec 12

Drive through urban planning and Mission Plaza

Mission Plaza 11-10-1970 shortly before dedication, trees are small but the basic construction is done. ©The Tribune/David Ranns

Urban planning is a complex business. Change requires vision, political skill, money and sometimes an out of control egg truck. An ironic turn when you think about it. The town that has outlawed drive through businesses has its most beloved public space courtesy of an unintended drive through.
An unbylined story that sounds like the voice of veteran writer Elliot Curry ran November 14, 1970 in the Telegram-Tribune Focus section.

Egg truck hatches plaza plan

In the case of San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza project, the eggs came first.
An egg truck, careening out of control off Cuesta Grade down Monterey Street — then part of Highway 101 — bore through the Mission Garage building.
That opened the door for efforts to remove the garage, with its tavern and hotel, land other clutter from the creek bank area across the street from the front of the mission.
Before that happenstance, back in 1954, there was hardly a peep out of the people about dressing up the framing of the city’s singular claim to fame.
Now, with the mission’s bicentennial coming in 1972, San Luis Obispans are plunging nearly a half-million dollars into the effort to capitalize on their big historical attraction.
Soon the first phase of the beautification job will be complete. The Downtown association is planning a dedication ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 22.
But a lot of water has trickled down the creek and — during the rainy seasons — gushed under the Warden Bridge since the idea of sprucing up the mission’s front yard began to materialize.
Ever since the first passing tourist clicked a camera in front of the mission, people probably have been thinking how suitable the place was for framing — if only the junk could be taken out of the foreground.
Just when the project was first conceived is shrouded by the passage of time. But the best guess of city officials is that its original form was created by a brigh young student in Margaret Maxwell’s art class in the old San Luis Obispo Junior College about 1948-49.
As she recalls, his name was Ray Juarez — now an architect in San Francisco, she thinks — And he made some drawings.
When it was decided to tear down the truck -damaged Mission Garage building, Soroptimist Clubber Rose McKeen took the drawings to Cal Poly’s architectural school.
Soon sketches appeared in the Chamber of Commerce display window. “They upset a lot of people,” Miss Maxwell said, “and the man in charge of the chamber got fired.”
Committee after committee came and went. Over the years, City Clerk Jan Fitzpatrick counted 25 separate proposals—many of them outlandish and some exceedingly expensive.
At one time businessmen wanted to cover the creek with concrete instead of landscaping it. And some thought of a 40-foot-tall clock tower would be a nice touch.
Always there was opposition and apathy. And not a few engineering hazards, legal hurdles and the perennial problem of financing.
First there was a need to clear and acquire the land — a billboard reading “You are in the heart of historic downtown San Luis Obispo” stood facing downtown Monterey Street from 1955 to 1965. Then, how to landscape the two acres, and what to put in it.
Already there have been complaints of too much rock work in the patio area. More recently there have been protests that not enough naive trees and plants are being included. They survive on little water and the irrigation system in the first phase might drown them. So the native plantings are being relegated mostly to the second phase area farther down the creek.
Still being suggested for placement in the plaza are such things as an old streetcar, a one-room schoolhouse, Santa Claus house, sculptures and a railroad depot. Before it burned, old St. Stephens Episcopal Chruch was proposed for a place on the plaza. A Christmas tree and Boy Scout “time capsule” have been eccpted.
The first professional plan came in 1963. It was prepared by Smith & Williams, South Pasadena recreation experts. Thoroughly enamored of the city, they produced a comprehensive proposal that not only took in the mission area, but tackled other areas of the city. Next the planning director, Peter Chapman, whomped up his own more modest proposal. The Downtown Association followed that up with a plan involving an underground garage whose cost was estimated by city engineer David Romero at $783,000.
In 1966 a group of businessmen hired architect John Ross of San Luis Obispo to draw up a plan, which provided for a decked parking area in front of the mission and was unanimously rejected by the council.
Then came two things that were to give the project impetus:
Three Cal Poly students — Walt Conwell, Jack Reineck and Ralph Taylor — started out to clean up the creek and ended with a plan for the plaza.
They had two plans — one for closing Monterey Street in front of the mission, the other leaving it open — but presented the closure idea first, and it shook up the council so much the students never got to present the other one, which they didn’t like anyway.
Eventually they collected from the city money to match a $1,000 grant they had obtained from America the Beautiful.
The other break came when, after years of fruitless legal negotiations, the Mary Fredrick Trust game up its key corner parcel to the city for $57,000. The present plan was designed by architect Richard Taylor of Santa Barbara.
Always the central issue over development of the plaza was whether to close the mission section of Monterey Street or leave it open. That was finally resolved after much hassle and opposition through petition resulting in a public referendum in the fall of 1968.
Close it, the voters said, by a margin that settled the dispute forever — two to one. Mission Plaza was on its way.

This Mission Plaza model included parking and a clock tower in front of the Mission. May 1967. ©The Tribune

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