Article California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence By Erin Olsen

Pismo Beach transforms an iconic neighborhood

The city of Pismo Beach won the 2022 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence in the Public Works, Infrastructure, Transportation category. For more information about the award program, visit

The Shell Beach neighborhood in Pismo Beach (pop. 8,072) is sandwiched between the ocean and U.S. Route 101. Running through it is Shell Beach Road — the city’s oldest road. Until recently, the roadway and sidewalks needed upgrades. Overhead street lighting was also insufficient, and the overhead utilities polluted the skyline.

What began as a community concept to make Shell Beach Road a safe, efficient, and enjoyable street for all its users turned into one of the largest projects ever completed by the city. The road is a key connector to downtown Pismo Beach, making the project even more important.

“It was not a single project but combined eight much-needed large projects into one even larger project,” said Benjamin Fine, the city’s director of public works and city engineer.

Going beyond a complete streets project

Those eight projects completely changed Shell Beach Road. The city did not just repave the road. It upsized existing waterlines, increased parking, improved stormwater drainage, and added traffic calming improvements, such as bulb-outs and narrowed lanes. The city also reduced driving by utilizing a “park-once” concept: Visitors and workers can park in one location and then walk or bike to various destinations along the corridor on an eight-foot-wide, separated, multi-use pathway.

The project includes several other multimodal improvements, including accessibility upgrades, widened sidewalks, painted bike sharrows on the roadway, and distinctive crosswalks with paver inlays for increased visibility.

Before the project, students walking to school had to cross up to 16 streets depending on where they lived. Now, they cross Shell Beach Road once to access the multi-use path and then a second time at the school.

“They did a great job making a usable space,” said Janice Kelsey-Stewart, a resident from nearby Avila Beach.

Contractors also upgraded the existing water infrastructure and undergrounded the existing overhead utilities along the entire 18-block corridor. The overhead wire utility undergrounding component was one of PG&E’s most difficult projects to design and implement. Decorative features, such as new LED streetlights, benches, trash cans, and public art, now dot the corridor as well.

Today, the road is as vibrant and unique as the surrounding landscape. “It completely changed the look and feel of a very special neighborhood,” said Jim Lewis, the former city manager.

Supporting residents before, during, and after project completion

An endeavor this lofty requires a lot of partnerships. The city worked on a weekly, daily, and hourly basis with utility companies, state and regional agencies, and Shell Beach Elementary School. The $13.3 million project was funded through various city funds, a San Luis Obispo Council of Governments grant, and reimbursements from utility companies.

A project this large is also bound to run into some issues. The contractor, construction manager, and the city worked through each issue to keep the project moving, even during COVID-19 Stay at Home orders. Unavoidable delays with the utility companies during the 2019 fire season were addressed by adjusting the work schedule to maximize contractor efficiency.

To address the long lead times for custom orders and materials, the city allowed the contractor to submit requests to the city early. This allowed construction to continue unabated.

“To be able to complete all the various elements, on budget and within a reasonable schedule is something to [be] very proud of,” Interim City Manager Jorge Garcia said.

The Shell Beach Improvement Group, a local community organization, supported the project from its inception and collaborated with the city on outreach. City staff held over 20 public meetings and workshops during the project’s design phase to ensure residents could provide input on every facet of the project.

City staff also spent countless hours working with impacted residents and businesses. Former City Manager Jim Lewis dined at area restaurants twice a month in a series of meetings known as “Dish It Out.” Each session attracted dozens of residents and allowed the city quickly to respond to feedback. They also boosted the restaurant’s business.

PG&E supported residents and businesses before and during construction with an outreach grant. The city utilized the grant to purchase and install three outdoor bulletin boards along the corridor, which the city used to post construction-related updates and information. SCORE, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to entrepreneur education and mentorship, also helped Shell Beach businesses remain open throughout the project by providing one-on-one assistance to businesses at no charge.

Although the work was long — and rarely easy — the benefits were worth it. The project connected neighborhoods to jobs and services while enabling bicycle and walking trips to schools, transit, and parks for residents and visitors. It also improved the neighborhood and the economic vitality of Shell Beach by drawing people to shop, live, and work in the community.

Benjamin A. Fine, P.E., is the director of public works and city engineer for Pismo Beach; he can be reached at or (805) 773-7037. Watch this video for an overview of the project.