Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

NEWS: Plan to Turn San Luis Obispo Farmland Into Green Mall to Go Before Voters

Photo by: Stephen Osman / L.A. Times

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on Measure J, a countywide voting initiative on the San Luis Obispo county ballot. Measure J is the result of an ongoing dispute regarding the Dalidio farm, which the owner, Ernie Dalidio has been trying to have developed into a shopping center, but has not yet been able to win approval for the plan.

His latest effort is to propose a compromise meant to appease environmentalists and others ... the Target, Lowe's, TJ Maxx, SportsMart, Old Navy, Chili's, Johnny Rockets, etc. will share space with a butterfly preserve, an organic farm, and a farmer's market.

Besides being a pretty typical state of affairs in my hometown, which has an eclectic population, this illustrates to me the complexity of the problems we face, especially when it comes to how we produce and acquire our food.

Because it is my curse, as usual I can see arguments on both sides of this issue and I am torn. This is another facet of the tension between mass production and small local businesses, between industrialized food and local, seasonal farm food. Which is better? Where do we draw the line at what is and isn't acceptable?

One the one hand, every sensibility I have shudders at the idea of this shopping center erected on the former farmland, complete with bronze statues of original owners to eternally watch what has become of the land they carefully tended. It's almost a joke to put a Chili's next to an organic farmer's market as if they go hand in hand. To create a sort of Disneyland farm setting to make up for the mega-chain stores crowding the rest of the area.

On the other hand, I can see the guy's frustration when he talks about trying to farm when his land is literally surrounded by a mall on one side, a bunch of car dealerships on the other, government and industrial buildings on a third side, and then residential neighborhoods closing the gap. The city has slowly been closing in on this farm, and yet he is being forced to maintain his own land as is. On the other hand, the problems he cites, such as clouds of pesticides floating into the nearby Petsmart, would not be problems if he also chose to farm the land in a different way. An organic farm may be more able to co-exist with the surroundings.

And of course there's this kind of stuff. When asked about the "green" components of they shopping center that were being planned, the chief planner (from L.A.) said:
"It gives us street cred with the locals." Really? You get "cred?" How cool you are. I truly wonder if when that guy said that, he meant to be speaking on the record. Because how gross and smarmy and condescending do you have to be to seriously make that statement about a project that is not just a building project. It's a kind of symbol about the way the town is going to go. Are we going to turn ourselves into Orange County? Or shall we remain the unique, coastal, agricultural town we once were?

But there is also a deeper complexity, which the L.A. Times article doesn't necessarily address. This is not merely a fight between the big developer and a rag-tag group of "no growth" townies and environmentalists. In fact, the main reason that this project has been so unsuccessful is that it is opposed by another group of developers--the Downtown Association, who are interested in not having more shopping opportunities to take dollars away from the downtown area. Does this change who is right and wrong in this situation? I don't know. I guess it just goes to show that these days, more often than not it's not a choice between good and evil, but a choice between two different evils. And often the only way for the good to have their voice be heard is to hop into bed with an evil that happens to have an interest in their cause.

I think these things symbolize an important conflict for our world today. On the one hand, mega-business is doing great harm to our planet and to the people that work for them. On the other hand, if Wal-Mart makes organic produce available to more people than could get it before, is this widespread availability worth impact this will surely have on the standards applied to organic produce?

I don't know. It's confusing and it's hard. I am an idealist who wants to live in a land where community is important, and where people grow their own food and everybody works together to create a sustainable process of productiona and consumption. Yeah, I'm a pinko. But at the same time, there's another part of me that's a realist and a cynic.

I know that money always wins. And I know that not every place can be a little village that produces enough locally and sustainably to keep every little villager happy. That's magic fairy tale land. That's not here.

Still ... every time I go back home there are are more large chain stores and more cookie cutter McMansion developments. I don't want the place where I come from to turn into the same town that's everywhere. I like it to be unique. I like the local businesses, and the farmers and the green spaces.

When I was in college, some friends from Orange County came to visit me at home during the summer. One guy looked around and said: "It's really ... rural." I was kind of offended at the sneer in his voice, as if nature was a lame thing to have around. However, I would far rather deal with his sneer than to have him come up from the square towns of housing tracts and mini-malls and feel right at home. There is already another mall in the works in this area, and two existing shopping centers. If this project goes through, what you will have is almost a whole mall city next to the actual city. If you have ever driven through Santa Maria on the 101, you will have some idea of what you would see as you drive into San Luis Obispo from the south.

I also know that I probably don't have the whole story here. There are probably aspects I am unaware of or haven't considered. I don't live there anymore, so I'm sure I don't know all the factors that weigh into this situation. Nor do I know all the players involved, except um, one of my Spanish teachers from high school who now heads the campaign against this initiative and may even be running for mayor? O ... kay. I'm going to keep my opinions on that to myself, since they are purely personal. But you may be able to guess just from my saying that how I personally feel about that.

Which is the other hard thing about being from a small town. How does it affect your opinion to know that a person who is driving a force is someone you think is wackadoo-crazy? Does it make their cause any less just? In Los Angeles, you generally don't know much about the people behind a movement. In SLO, you know way more than you should. It's hard to keep that from coloring your opinions, no matter how hard you may try.

So how, ultimately, do I feel? Ideally, I would love for that land to be a working organic farm that provides healthy food for local families, rather than providing a Chili's and a Johnny Rockets. But in reality I know that is not going to happen. Either it's going to be developed, or it's going to sit there while everyone fights about it. Neither one of those is an entirely appealing solution.


I say boo to strip malls. *le sigh* Sadly as great as organic is, it usually isn;t that financially sound.

said by Garrett at 11:10 AM Delete

Creative Commons license The content on Gastronomy 101 may be reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.