Downtown Enhancement Project Exploration Approved
by Jack McCurdy
Synopsis: Preliminary plans calling for a makeover of downtown Morro Bay, including many new buildings, a public plaza, an art center, a grand staircase extending down from Morro Bay Boulevard to the Embarcadero and many other modernized features, has won the support of the Morro Bay City Council, clearing the way for public workshops and development of details over the coming year.
A set of proposed plans to makeover downtown Morro Bay—highlighted by such new features as a three-story building, a public plaza, an art center, a public swimming pool, a grand staircase extending down from Morro Bay Boulevard to the Embarcadero, a public park with an amphitheater, public restrooms, "pocket parks," entertainment "venues," and extended mixed residential and business uses—has won the support of the City Council for exploration.
"Downtown" under the plan is defined as an 18-block area from Piney Way to Market Avenue and Pacific Street to Dunes Street, focusing primarily on the central intersection of Morro Bay Boulevard and Main Street and extending along both main thoroughfares for a number of blocks. On other streets in the 18-block area, as well as along Morro Bay Boulevard and Main Street, the plan suggests differing land uses for neighborhood commercial, mixed retail, residential/office, mixed office/residential and continued residential.
Next comes the scheduling of public workshops to determine what the community thinks about the idea, called the Downtown Enhancement Project. A final report on how to proceed—once the specifics of the plan and ways it could be funded are determined--is expected in nine to 18 months, Gerald Luhr, one of the main proponents of what he calls an "economic vitality plan" to help invigorate tourism and the financial health of the city, said.
The preliminary plans were developed by students in the City & Regional Planning Department at Cal Poly with departmental professors Umut Toker and Chris Clark as their advisors. The department was contacted last year by Council member Noah Smukler and city Planning Commission members John Diodati and Luhr, who together had formed an ad hoc committee to investigate the feasibility of a downtown redevelopment concept.
Morro Bay and Main Looking Towards Ocean
Market Avenue Plaza
Development Around Bay Theater
The downtown specific plan, as it is called by the study group, encompasses three proposals that outline different aspects, descriptions of concepts, maps and visual images and pictures of other locations adapted for possible application to Morro Bay. They are available for viewing at
Two preliminary workshops were held in April when groups of residents were given opportunities to view the proposals as they were being developed and to comment on them.
Luhr said the downtown plan is a "blueprint that will guide future development" in that general area. "When development happens, and it will happen, a remodel or upgrade will be guided by the plan in place," he said.
About three years ago, Luhr said he and an ad-hoc committee worked up design guidelines for the downtown and presented them to a joint meeting of the Council and Commission. Then last year, at another joint meeting where the idea was discussed, the Council created the current subcommittee composed of him, Diodati and Smukler to review the existing and historical documents that related to the downtown.
The sub-committee submitted to a joint meeting their findings and a recommendation to collaborate with Cal Poly to develop three draft specific plans for the downtown. The Council agreed to pay $10,000 to Cal Poly to develop draft plans. Smukler had suggested seeking Cal Poly's involvement.
Funding possibilities, Luhr said, include a business improvement district, a parking district, a downtown association that would provide critical backing for the idea, grants, the creation of a redevelopment agency focused on downtown, or the city's general fund. He emphasized that the subcommittee he is part of does not advocate any funding mechanism. "That is for the community to decide," he added.
Meantime, grants from a variety of sources should be available to finance at least some of the initial steps, once it gains a consensus of support in the community, he said.
At its June 14 meeting where the Council "expressed support for this project and directed staff to move as quickly as possible without expending funds," it was clear that, as Smukler put it, the downtown enhancement plan "faces financial challenges." He estimated the plan needs $50,000 to $100,000 for implementation from this point forward. He also called for a staff member to be assigned to the project. But, he added, it is a "long-term effort that can be phased in, if necessary." He asked the Council for its support of the Planning Commission in pursuing the plan as a "priority project." But just how much of a priority it is for other Council members was not made clear.
Mayor Janice Peters, who, Luhr said, suggested a "downtown visioning" project last year, which helped to get the plan formulated, said at the meeting that "I don't want to take staff time for this." Council member Carla Borchard said she also was concerned about using staff time. Peters said "it is going to be up to the Commission if it wants to do this after its regular business." Council member Betty Winholtz said the public workshops should come before the city becomes deeply involved.
Rob Livick, city public services director, said "we don't have staff to add to the (project) team." He added that the "stakeholder community—the downtown property owners—need to be involved. To be successful, there will have to be a buy-in by the community." He said $50,000 to $100,000 will be needed for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and to hire a financial consultant going forward.
Smukler proposed posting "updates (on the progress of the plan) on the city's website" but he said he doesn't expect the workshops to be televised, which may restrict community access to the discussions and understanding of the concept. Smukler also called for involvement of "blue ribbon stakeholders from different groups in the community" to help gain involvement of residents.
Luhr said the preliminary plans developed by the ad hoc committee were based in part on the history of such efforts in Morro Bay. One prominent aspect of that history is the Regional/Urban, Design Assistance Team (RUDAT) made up of architects, engineers, and design students from Cal Poly that was formed by the Council in 1997 to study the area and recommend design concepts to improve the business districts in town.
"RUDAT was a great idea," Luhr said. "So we are not starting over. We used RUDAT as one of the prime historical documents." But RUDAT was never implemented. It "never had any force of code," Luhr said. "It was a vision without any enforceable direction." As important as it was, RUDAT "may not be as relevant now. Things have changed in the community since then. A whole new paradigm is in place now."
Morro Bay should not be considered "as isolated from the capital markets. Morro Bay has to compete with other tourist destinations. The power plant provided city revenues and the fishing industry drew tourists. Now they don't." Morro Bay now needs a new "economic vitality plan," he said.
Colby Crotzer, a member of the Council in 1997 who made significant contributions to the RUDAT design concepts, said that plan also was developed by Cal Poly students and staff and focused on creating an open-space promenade shaped like an amphitheater on the bluff along Market Street where Morro Bay Boulevard ends, providing a vista of the Embracardero, Morro Rock, the Estuary, and the ocean. It was envisioned to offer an appealing visual draw to visitors, Crotzer said, along with a wide stairway, inviting them to move back and forth from the "old town" business district down to the Embarcadero.
It also could have served as open space for outdoor events such as a fish and farmer's market, street fairs and concerts, he added.
In addition, a cable railway on the stairway was proposed by Crotzer and his wife, Shoosh, as part of the plan to allow people to ride up and down the stairs as a way of encouraging visitors to widen their shopping opportunities, Crotzer said. RUDAT also contained redevelopment designs for other downtown business areas.
As a Council resolution stated at the time, "a key element of the RUDAT Study was for the City to acquire the land at the site of the former Brannigan’s Restaurant (781 Market) and land on the Embarcadero (714 Embarcadero) for a public park/retail complex," which would have cleared that area for development of the promenade. The restaurant was purchased then and sold recently.
RUDAT was never implemented. Crotzer said the main reason was because it was "micromanaged to death" by the Council under mayor Rodger Anderson. Bickering over details, he said, prevented the vision from ever reaching consensus, even though the Council members agreed on the need to upgrade the downtown area and create more tourist attractions.
Perhaps the failure to move ahead with RUDAT, Crotzer said, had something to do with the failure to develop a community consensus in support of the plan due to lack of an adequate effort to inform residents through distribution of information or workshops about the idea.
It remains to be seen how residents will view the proposed style of architecture used in the visuals contained in the plans and whether it adequately preserves or should preserve the look and feel of Morro Bay today.
Roger Ewing, a long-time observer of community goings-on, former member of the city Public Works Advisory Board, and candidate for the Council in 2008 (who is a big admirer of RUDAT), said after viewing a presentation of the new downtown enhancement plan to the Planning Commission:
"I was surprised by the loss of the 'quaint, small town' qualities that we all moved here to enjoy. What was presented, through no fault of the students, was a new 'road map' for the developers and real estate agents to use in their attempt to get rich quick at the expense of 'Old Town.' It all looked like the ideal for the downtown area of any upscale, neo-modern city anywhere in the country. But in reality, it's a complete change from the Morro Bay we've been fighting for lo these many years. Change is inevitable, but does it have to be so complete in its elimination of what we hold dear?"
It seems like a core issue that only the community can resolve. (Read More)
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