San Luis Obispo, California

California | 1999 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 10/162008

San Luis Obispo, Calif., (pop. 45,000) is nestled in the emerald hills slightly inland on the state’s central coast. It was founded in the mid-1700s around Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, along the historic El Camino Real, or trail, blazed by Father Junipero Serra.

During the 1950s, San Luis Obispo saw its share of suburban sprawl within geographically defined borders, and the first mall was built just a few miles from downtown. In the 1970s, another mall was added. But even combined, the two shopping centers proved to be little competition for downtown. However, the downtown did have its share of problems with run-down buildings, car cruising, and a dearth of parking. City leaders and planners took the reins and developed downtown design guidelines — spelling out improvements for the streetscape, facade restorations, sidewalk paving, public art, sign systems, architectural regulations, and lighting. The Downtown Association was formed in 1975 and adopted the Main Street Four-Point Approach™ in 1986.

Currently, the San Luis Obispo program has become a showcase for downtown revitalization, with exciting promotions, beautiful streetscapes and storefronts, a strong economic base (the largest tax revenue district in the city), and genuine relationships with other community agencies, including serving as an advisory body to the City Council. The city’s center is a fun and delightful gathering place for locals and a starting point for out-of-town guests.

Established in 1983, the community’s farmers market has enjoyed year-round success. Held every Thursday night with different themes, it boasts a weekly attendance of 15,000. The market has been so successful that San Luis Obispo created an educational video to share its success with other communities. The market, with 150 vendors, has inspired the 300+ downtown retailers and restaurants to remain open later on Thursdays, and it has boosted hotel occupancy rates among visitors and encouraged them to stay through the weekend.

Recently, improvements by private investors have enhanced the downtown’s appearance. The Downtown Centre, a well-designed complex of shops, restaurants, and theaters now occupies an entire block in the heart of downtown and features nationally recognized stores as well as a variety of smaller shops. With a piazza-style setting, the Downtown Centre has become a gathering place for families and friends, and has raised the standard for other businesses in the area. Many retailers now keep later hours, clean their sidewalks, and offer better window and storefront displays.

Many have remarked that San Luis Obispo, while not recovering from blight or an economic downturn, has a great downtown because it made the effort to preserve its buildings and retail center in the 1970s, before the community could abandon its central business district.