The achievements of Atascadero’s founders have not always been appreciated as much as in this year of the centennial and the Rotunda Building’s restoration. Not only did many of Atascadero’s original buildings go unpreserved, but also E.G. Lewis’ far-sighted plan for the community was eviscerated in the 1950s by the 101 freeway. Though the freeway could have been routed east of town, alongside the railroad right-of-way, local merchants coveting road-stop business from freeway travelers prevailed in insisting that the freeway go through the middle of town. So it was that in 1954 the freeway split Atascadero for its entire length, cutting off all east-west streets in the middle, except at seven freeway interchanges where underpasses or overpasses were built. (See Lon Allan’s book, Atascadero: The Vision of One—The Work of Many, at 121-22.)
Superimposing the freeway on the street configuration of Atascadero had the effect of overriding E.G. Lewis’ plan for the community. Not only did the freeway cut off most east-west routes, but in the downtown hub area, where the Lewis plan had concentrated business, social and cultural activities, the elevated highway walled off one side of downtown from the other. The freeway’s presence also caused subsequent development to proceed along lines derived from a plan by Caltrans engineers for a highway, not for a reorganized community.
All these years later, Atascadero appears to many passers-by, visitors and even residents, as less a city than a long string of freeway interchanges with surrounding commercial development. With east-west traffic funneled onto the few streets where Caltrans built freeway interchanges and under- or over-passes, businesses naturally clustered around those intersections. In addition, those in charge of governing Atascadero were content to embrace the freeway reconfiguration and did little to keep E.G. Lewis’ plan for Atascadero alive. Far from trying to concentrate business development in the downtown area built by Atascadero’s founders, they allowed small, suburban-style, residential dwellings to be built around the Rotunda Building in the 1950s. Also, right up to the present, they have actively promoted business development at so-called commercial “nodes” around the freeway interchanges, with little regard for impact on the enterprises in the center of town.
The operating assumption in Atascadero for decades has evidently been that road-stop business is the community’s lifeblood. Without debating whether that belief was justified in the past, it is no longer realistic to aim so low. With over 28,000 people now residing in Atascadero, along with tens of thousands of others within convenient driving distance, the population base is big enough to support a substantial business district in the center of town. Also, the advent of wine tourism is bringing thousands of tourists to local inland locations like Atascadero, often for several days at a time. A thriving commercial, social and cultural center in downtown Atascadero would be a valued attraction for both residents and visitors alike.
The time is ripe to get back to a plan like the one E.G. Lewis endowed Atascadero with, and to break from the practice of settling for road-stop business and a freeway-centric community. A good first step in that direction would be for the city to stop straining to create yet another freeway commercial node at Santa Barbara Road, 1-˝ miles below the southern end of the already too-elongated, blighted, existing business district. Instead of reinforcing a “string-of-freeway-interchanges” image of Atascadero, and siphoning business opportunities away from other parts of the existing business district, the city should be doing everything possible to encourage downtown development and infill projects in the pock marks of our existing business district.
Atascadero can still be spared the fate of being a mere string of freeway interchanges. The city must do its part by discontinuing its emphasis on developing commercial nodes at freeway interchanges and concentrating on reviving the business district, especially the downtown. Such a change in policy, combined with the existing favorable market conditions and Atascadero’s historic buildings and legacy, might allow the development of a destination downtown that would finally redeem Atascadero from the curse of the freeway.
For the complete article see the 12-27-2013 issue.
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