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Mandate for front porches stirs debate in a quiet city


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- There are streets here where the porches are deep, the shade is cool and the spring flowers billow thick as clouds, where old men doze over the Sunday paper and children build castles out of sheets and sagging wicker lounge chairs.

And then there are the suburbs of the past 10 years, largely populated by fleeing Los Angelenos, where certain houses have "a double garage door and a blank wall being the only presentation to the street," says Glen Matteson, associate city planner. "They have a very different feel from the city's traditional neighborhoods."

OK, so a lot has happened between the late 1800s, when much of Old Town was built, and the last decade or so -- things like drive-by shootings, air conditioners, television sets and auto exhaust, factors that, when taken together, can make a person go inside on a summer night instead of watching the dusk and chatting with the neighbors. Who are the neighbors, anyway?

But although porches throughout the country have largely shriveled up like unnecessary body parts trimmed by evolution, they could make a comeback here. A City Council committee has perplexed this town halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco by recommending that nearly every new house built in San Luis Obispo have a front porch.

The rationale: "Such design features are effective ways to build neighborhoods and to improve the social ecology of the city," says the stuffily titled General Plan Land Use Element, Environmental Quality Task Force Draft.

But what is social ecology, and what's wrong with San Luis Obispo's?

Richard Schmidt -- architect, task force member and porch proponent -- rues the day the term was ever committed to print. "I've taken so much flak for that," he says. To some in town, the idea smacks of social engineering, the forcing of "Utopian views" on a small city in a struggling state. But to Mr. Schmidt, social ecology is simply "the feeling that it's not good for a community to wall people off from one another."

Most residents contend that there's nothing much wrong with the social ecology as it stands.

People in this town of about 43,000 stroll the streets at night, car doors are generally left unlocked, and California Polytechnic University students congregate on front steps for a sunset six-pack.

Mr. Schmidt and his committee want it to stay that way; porches are a hoped-for guarantee that this slow-growth haven doesn't explode as other California communities have.

"Front porches, entries that are planned to make it easy for people to run into each other, may be clumsy mechanisms," he says. "We thought they were worthwhile things to try."

But the very idea of compulsory porches brings sniggers to some City Hall offices and makes home builder Stanley Bell splutter about "radicals . . . influencing, no, warping" the planning process.

Other opponents view the porch proposal -- three lines in a ponderous 95-page document -- as a mere tangent to important work at hand: figuring out if and how San Luis Obispo will grow.

"When . . . you're dictating homes have front porches that in theory all of us must sit on every evening and chat with each other, you're starting to manipulate people's behavior," says Charlie Fruit, vice president of Commerce Bank.

Mr. Matteson and Mr. Schmidt give the proposal a 50-50 chance, but noted architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, author of an essay on porches titled, "As American as Blue Jeans and Sweat Shirts," doesn't hold out much hope for the idea.

However, he does understand what some people have been pining for since the passing of the porch society sometime after World War II: "If you drive around the suburbs, for instance, you'll see very often people sitting in their garages," says Mr. Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's very sad. It shows you they want to sit out and look at the street, but that's the only place where they can do it."

Porches are a peculiarly American invention, created to tame the wilderness of a continent-size frontier, to mediate between the peril outside and safety within, he notes. The most famous, he says, was George Washington's, a structure tacked onto his Mount Vernon home in 1772.

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