Council, PC hold visioning session


ATASCADERO — According to the online biography of economist Steve Gunnells with PlaceWorks, the Orange County-based consultancy firm hired by the City of Atascadero to give them an economic forecast, his favorite quote is: “Knowledge is a lot like manure — it works better the more you spread it around.”

Luckily for the July 11 combined meeting of the Atascadero City Council and their Planning Commission, Gunnells started his briefing with a note that Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore had helped trim down the 130 planned presentation slides to a more manageable level. 

He none-the-less wanted the groups to be aware of background trends in fertility rates from Baby Boomers to Millennials and Gen Z, and overall metrics that show a drift away from their spending physical retail to online shopping.

“Most germane to this discussion,” he said, “is inflation-adjusted dollars spent on retail per household.”

Official statistics focus on the category of “non-store” spending, which used to cover venues such as the Sears Catalog but now apply to the “Cyber Monday” trend and spending binges on Amazon.com.

Based on market analysis documents his firm drew up, which the City could use to entice developers into making profitable and mutually beneficial land-use decisions, there is demand support for infill retail such as a small pharmacy or manufacturing and technology centers.

“The biggest issue is that only value of [existing] properties for resale is in the land,” he said, “Buildings are a liability. No one wants to pay for old buildings just to tear down then build again.” Owners, of course, want more value than that from properties with existing facilities, he added, which makes redevelopment tricky.

The suggested solution was to focus efforts on encouraging “nodes” for experience-based services and retail, a language Dunsmore has been speaking to the Council since last year when it was determined the Walmart would most likely sell their property in the city with a restriction on any other box store taking its place.

Gunnells recommended that the municipality attempt to encourage local entrepreneurs for foodservice and small clothing retail. 

As an aside, the City has taken some steps toward in recent years with Mayor Heather Moreno attending the last “Talk on the Block” series for the Chamber of Commerce — held in a new venue on Traffic way — in attire she said she had been happy to purchase at local shops in the emergent downtown.

The economist also recommended consolidation of lots zoned for mixed-use for larger business campus and light manufacturing development. The latter being an attractive option for businesses wishing to employ recent high school graduates in skilled trade fields.

Four development nodes were identified as part of an El Camino Real corridor study, with overlay drawings of some existing lots visualized by the PlaceWorks firm for different uses.

Included are the complex currently housing Kmart in the City’s north and Food 4 Less to the south.  

Food 4 Less is not understood to be going anywhere any time soon, rendering the drawings for that lot purely theoretical, but Councilmembers noted they were aware of rumblings from Kmart’s corporate entity that the chain was in trouble, as well as the City has been in touch with new owners of that complex which may make the lot more open to redevelopment.

Councilwoman Heather Newsom said she wanted to be very cautious in how these drawings were understood by the public, “I [don’t want to be seen as] luring developers to replace our small businesses already in place, because they are the foundation of our community.”

She did like the idea of more walkable pathways where it would be safer for a mother and child to enjoy a stroll to the shops linking Smart and Final with the complex across the street, however, but she was aware the community does not always enjoy the process of change.

Dunsmore noted that the concepts were a starting point for the future and not a mandate either to existing property owners or developers, but that zoning can help guide projects the Council would like to see, “It's a starting point and room for refinement.”

For their part, members of the Planning Commission noted they were glad to have looked at all the data, which also included the results of the public outreach on architecture and other stylistic elements along the El Camino Corridor.

Planning commissioner Ellen Beraud, currently running for a seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors in 2020, noted that Atascadero was home to several aging strip malls which could do with a fresher start.

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