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Mission Plaza

Every so often a bold stroke is made in the design of cities that actually works. It enriches urban life, restores natural systems and rejuvenates the human spirit. San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza is such a project. Since 1968, this two block area of downtown has become the physical, cultural, and spiritual heart of the city. The Mission Plaza project is an outstanding example of how communities can achieve multiple planning objectives through environmental design. Creek preservation, flood control, recreation, and economic and cultural development programs have all shaped Mission Plaza, and resulted in a delightful urban space.

San Luis Obispo is the County Seat on the Central Coast of California. Located on State Highway 101, about mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it has a population of about 45,000 and covers about 10.7 square miles. San Luis Obispo’s scenery is striking. Softly sculptured hills ring the city, with a series of steep, conical peaks or “morros”—the remains of ancient volcanoes, jutting up from the valley floor.

In 1772, Father Junipero Serra founded Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa near the banks of San Luis Obispo Creek. Today, the Old Mission still holds regular services, and is the focus for the city’s most cherished public open space—Mission Plaza. It consists of a two block area with a large public plaza, seating areas, and pathways between the Mission and businesses on the opposite side of the Creek. The plaza has continued to grow and evolve in phases over the last two decades.

Visitors can take in three museums (San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, History Center of San Luis Obispo, Children’s Museum), dine on outdoor patios overlooking the creek, attend church services, enjoy outdoor performances, shop in the nearby stores, view public art, have a picnic, or simply take a quiet walk along the creek.

Community efforts to create a creek side plaza first gained public support with the completion of a feasibility study by Smith and Williams in 1963. More than anything else, the study stressed the city’s unique gifts—its small town character, historic Mission, and natural downtown creek. The study—and later, the plaza’s development plans—became a lightening rod for community discussion, controversy, and negotiation. What emerged from the study and community debate was a growing appreciation for the creek as a key thread in the City’s increasingly urban fabric.

Concern over flood control also generated support for Mission Plaza. In 1969 and 1973 San Luis Obispo experienced serious flooding along portions of its three major downtown streets. Due to its size and shape, the 80-year old under-city culvert cannot accommodate flows greater than about 5,500 cubic feet per second, equivalent to a 40-year design storm. Years of dumping, sedimentation, and neglect had created “bottlenecks” along the major creeks and reduced their flow capacity. As part of Mission Plaza, the creek flood way was widened and re-contoured, and terraced stone walls built to prevent bank scouring during high velocity flows. The City made the critical choice not to convert its creeks to the concrete-lined, vertical walled channels found in many California cities. Instead, the Council adopted a flood management policy which committed the City to an environmentally-sensitive program of protecting creeks while reducing the risk of flooding.

Initially, most downtown merchants were less than enthusiastic about the project. They were worried about the possible loss of access and parking for some businesses. Concerns with downtown traffic circulation, flood hazards, security and safety were also raised. A citizen committee was formed, consisting of downtown merchants, Waterway Planning Board members, City advisory commission members, and City staff to study the project and work with the community on resolving legitimate concerns. Throughout, the support and visionary leadership of the Council and prominent business people helped keep the community’s long-range objectives and design issues in perspective. Ultimately, plans for the plaza’s development assumed the role of a multi-objective, comprehensive planning program for the project’s phased development.

Merchant access and parking was maintained, and businesses were encouraged to open a second “storefront” onto the creek walkway, with opportunities for strolling and outdoor dining. Decorative lighting and walkway railing were included to address safety concerns, and a new “mission-style” sidewalk paving was developed to unify the plaza’s design. The plaza has been extensively landscaped using California native plants such as California Sycamore, California Lilac, Oregon Grape and Coast Live Oak. Landscaping has been designed to shade and cool the creek, provide food, forage and nesting habitat for wildlife, and to re-introduce the patterns, textures and colors of a natural riparian community into the heart of the City.


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