Latest look at SLO's Mission Plaza renovation: 'No' to food trucks, 'yes' to kiosk cafe

Feb 23, 2020

A plan to refurbish San Luis Obispo’s downtown Mission Plaza is now several years in the making. But this week marked the first time elected city officials looked at and discussed an official draft design of the first phase of the project. The response was supportive overall, but with a handful of criticisms.

That’s after at least five previous public meetings with other city advisory bodies and community outreach meetings. And “at least 62 stakeholder meetings,” the designer said, meaning local businesses and property owners, the parish leadership of the Mission church and groups that put on community events in Mission Plaza.

The ambition of the full renovation project is to build a new public restroom facility, increase Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility and add public art, among other goals. A big focus for the consultant design team is eliminating “hiding spots,” where presumably transient people are taking refuge.

According to Debbie Rudd of the RRM Design Group, one of the most repeated comments from the people surveyed was there are some “problem areas...that need to be activated.”

“People were telling us that they weren’t feeling safe in Mission Plaza,” Rudd told the city council. “We heard that there were drug paraphernalia and needles being found, so we really needed to be looking to reorganize the space to attract people and families to want to use Mission Plaza.”

The present lawn area behind the public restroom building and the grassy stretch adjacent to the historical adobe are on the chopping block. Those are the top areas targeted in the renovation, in favor of “activated spaces” that attract people other than those currently using the plaza.

Besides creating a civic space that draws more public use and is more versatile, a key question for city officials is whether to design for food trucks or a standalone, permanent cafe. That discussion and questions about details on new public restrooms were the focus of the council’s Feb. 18 study session.

A majority of the council members rejected the proposal of food trucks in the plaza on a permanent basis, saying they could take business away from neighboring restaurants, in addition to clashing visually.

“Maybe a little kiosk on wheels might be the initial thing, but not food trucks,” said council member Carlyn Christianson. “Food trucks are really great but they’re really big, and really ugly.”

The local business association group Downtown SLO agreed with the objections to allowing food trucks in the area.

“Historically our organization has been pretty opposed to food trucks simply because they do provide direct competition for many of the restaurants in our downtown,” said Downtown SLO’s Bettina Swigger.

Council comments included critiques aimed at the proposed placement of a cafe and seating area and its close proximity to the public restrooms. And how, according to the draft design, it would be difficult to see the new cafe from the Chorro Street entrance. So council direction asked for a redesign that extended the cafe beyond the historic adobe, which isn’t going anywhere.

The study session gave official feedback to the consultants working on the design. They’ll return before both the city’s advisory groups and the council at a later date with changes. This week’s presentation and preliminary design plans are available on the city’s website.

But the completion of even the first phase of the project—an operating cafe, new restrooms and landscaping, string lights illuminating night time patios with wine-sipping patrons—is still far off in the future.