By AL FONZI

Do you ever wonder what you would do to make things “better” in your community if it could only be accomplished by a simple command, as if you were King or Queen? I’ve often expressed my thoughts on how to make our city better, more habitable and friendly to those who might invest in Atascadero or simply living here. I’m usually met with patient sighs or occasionally rolled eyes with “yes dear” but more often with “if we had the money…”

Unfortunately, about the time I’m thinking of another grandiose idea someone else has the money or political clout to thwart my idea. A case in point is the unused land surrounding the State Hospital. We have a problem with transients in need of shelter during weather extremes be it hot, cold or wet and insufficient space at the ECHO shelter or in some cases, those ineligible to use ECHO due to substance abuse or behavioral issues.

For these sad folks I’ve thought about using the State Hospital land to build a temporary shelter, the same sort used by our troops in Iraq and in which I lived during most of tour of duty there. It was comprised of large tents, wooden floors, trailers for showers and portable latrines. Ours was air-conditioned via generators but a local shelter could be hooked up to permanent power sources, alleviating the need for generators. Another trailer could be used for county social services personnel to provide assistance in improving their situation. In addition to sleeping areas there could be a tent for food services, staffed by local volunteers. Security could be provided by the State Hospital Police as it’s on their property along with Fire/Emergency Medical assistance from the State Hospital Fire Department. It’s not a bridge too far if there is political will. Currently, police cannot force someone to vacate the Sunken Gardens or sleeping/living in the creek bed or other areas unless they have someplace to take them. This shelter would provide that location and not cost millions of dollars to build. It would probably cost far less than permanent facilities.

Unfortunately this is an idea that isn’t likely to come to fruition as the State Hospital likely has other plans for the land as does the State. The most recent State initiative is to build between 600 and as many as 2000 low to extremely low cost housing units, stacked and packed up to four to six stories. It might add 3000 low income residents to Atascadero without any money for expanded infrastructure. One urgent need would be to increase the capacity of the sewer plant which is near capacity now and unable to absorb such a large increase in population. The State doesn’t care and will do whatever it wants to do under new laws that allow it to override any zoning or local objections in building low-cost housing. It’s unfortunate as Atascadero has led the County in building affordable housing and integrating them into neighborhoods without stigmatization of a “project” type of development. You can drive through any existing Atascadero development and not know which home is a low-cost home from any other on the block from the exterior.

I believe our city leaders should immediately lobby the Governor to intervene and propose a better idea than what State housing planners are about to inflict upon our City.

Other fantasies I’ve entertained involve brightening up our town during holidays, such as Christmas which is a national holiday with secular overtones as much as religious origins. I would first move the Winter Wonderland from the downtown and put it at Atascadero Lake Park which has sloping terrain, adequate parking and a better venue than city streets which must be closed during peak retail season. Many downtown merchants close their doors due to reduced parking and the threat of many snow-covered muddy feet tracking muck into their stores. Moving the event to the Park would alleviate an inconvenience for the merchants. I would hold a six-week long “Christkindlmarket” (Christmas fair) from Thanksgiving weekend until after the first week of January. Light up Sunken Garden with booths along with all of the downtown with thousands of lights and create a holiday festival to draw people from throughout the County, which would also be free to attend. Such markets are common in German Bavaria and create a festive atmosphere throughout the Christmas shopping season. The foot traffic would greatly assist downtown merchants who choose to remain open and take advantage of the market attendance. Lighting up El Camino Real and Atascadero Lake Park with a million or more lights would make Atascadero a holiday destination for thousands.

I would add a rectangular fountain a half-foot deep at the west end of Sunken Gardens (adjacent to ECR) that would provide a cool wading area in summer for children and with cooling coils to make it an ice-skating site during the “Christkindlmarket” in winter, free to the adventurous along with a permanent bandstand at the southeastern corner of Sunken Gardens.

I’d put a median strip the length of ECR from Junipero to Rosario, planted with broadleaf trees for shade, multiple pedestrian crossing points and turn-arounds for vehicles. 

Finally, I’d put a trellis with vines, (also lighted) throughout the downtown area to allow shade for sidewalks, outdoor cafes and protection of merchandise in store windows from summer heat. That is, if I were King.

Getting through this together, Atascadero