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Pay up: Parking costs are about to double for downtown SLO visitors 

When freshman San Luis Obispo City Councilmember Emily Francis started her term in office a few months ago, she was initially skeptical about city plans to build a fourth parking garage downtown.

Her concern wasn't just about the $53 million estimated price tag—a cost that has basically doubled since COVID-19. She questioned the need and how it fit into the future vision of downtown SLO.

"It's been an evolution of thought for me, coming in as a citizen and not really seeing a need for additional parking and having that massive price tag, also," said Francis, an avid bicyclist. "I'm not a fan of spending money on parking."

But like her four colleagues on the City Council, Francis has since come around to supporting the five-level, 403-space structure that's planned for the corner of Nipomo and Palm streets—despite increasingly painful trade-offs.

click to enlarge GARAGED A car pulls into the Higuera Street parking garage, one of three public parking garages in downtown San Luis Obispo that will be impacted by upcoming price increases. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • GARAGED A car pulls into the Higuera Street parking garage, one of three public parking garages in downtown San Luis Obispo that will be impacted by upcoming price increases.

In order to raise sufficient revenue to cover what's now expected to be a $47 million loan, the city is upping downtown parking rates to as high as $4 per hour, starting this July. The on-street rate will go up again in 2025 to $5 per hour for the foreseeable future.

Those major rate increases—which hit as the city works to modernize parking payment systems with new kiosks and phone apps—are causing angst and confusion for many downtown business owners and visitors.

"The upcoming approved rate changes have the potential to cause public outcry," Downtown SLO Association CEO Bettina Swigger wrote in recent comments to the City Council about a new five-year parking management plan.

While city leaders said that they are under no illusion that the new rates won't be painful, they're confident that the investment will pay off and help the city achieve long-planned goals for downtown.

"It fits really well into the vision that I and a lot of folks have for downtown, which is freeing up our streets to be more bike friendly and put in safe infrastructure for pedestrians," Francis said. "And just looking at the data we're dealing with, we would have a significant issue downtown [with parking] if we don't build it.

"I know the price tag is just bananas," she added, "but it's just also one of those things where it's never going to get cheaper. It's the reason it hasn't been built for the past 30 years."

Doubling down on a vision

Discussions about building a parking garage on the corner of Nipomo and Palm streets date back to the early 2000s, according to SLO officials.

Projections then showed that the demand for parking downtown would only increase—and building another structure would ensure capacity for the long haul.

But parking issues downtown weren't that severe yet, and garages are expensive, so the urgency level was low at the time, said Gaven Hussey, the city's current parking manager.

"Early on in the 2000s, could it have been more expedited? Yes. But the actual need for parking wasn't there at the time," Hussey said. "If we'd done something in 2000 or 2001, we would've had a structure built well before the time it was actually needed."

In 2011, the city approached the SLO Repertory Theatre (then the SLO Little Theatre) with an idea for a joint project: The city could build the parking garage and allot a portion of the land to the nonprofit to construct a new performing arts center.

"We spent a few months looking at the other options," SLO Rep's Managing Artistic Director Kevin Harris recalled to New Times, "and realized we'd be fools not to pick up the city's offer of basically free land. Plus, being able to have SLO Rep be the cornerstone of this new Cultural Arts District was very attractive to us."

According to Hussey, those plans moved forward—at a slow and steady pace typical of large public projects. By 2020, the city was nearly ready to start construction on the estimated $25 million garage. Then COVID-19 hit.

"We were really close to getting all the pieces going. No one assumed you're going to have to shut down the entire economy," Hussey said. "And who would've known the pandemic was going to cause a worldwide shortage on materials."

SLO City Manager Derek Johnson calls what happened next the "triple whammy." In the wake of the pandemic, construction costs skyrocketed, interest rates went up, and the city lost $4 million in parking revenue due to COVID-19.

Both the garage and theater's price tags essentially doubled and forced the City Council to take a look at whether the project was really worth more than $50 million.

"That's the big question," SLO City Councilmember Andy Pease said. "We would save ourselves a lot of money and [lower] parking rates."

Weighing options

How much of a parking crunch is there in downtown SLO? The answer depends on what day and time you go, according to a recent SLO parking study.

During most days and times, the downtown parking demand does not hit 85 percent of its capacity—a bellwether metric for when parking resources are overburdened.

Demand only climbs above the 85 percent threshold on Thursday nights during the downtown farmers' market. Then, parking structures are at about 92 percent capacity, according to the study.

But council members said that building the new garage is not just about meeting the city's current parking needs, but those of the future.

While noting that downtown businesses and customers have been asking for a fourth parking structure for "20-plus years," Mayor Erica Stewart also pointed out that the city continues to grow in population.

click to enlarge PAY UP A local resident navigates a new parking payment kiosk on Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo on Feb. 27. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • PAY UP A local resident navigates a new parking payment kiosk on Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo on Feb. 27.

"If we don't build this parking structure, we continue down the road where our downtown businesses are harmed in the long run, our vitality is harmed in the long run," Stewart said.

City leaders also said the structure is key to moving cars and parking demand away from the main streets of downtown—which will provide more opportunities to improve bike and pedestrian safety in the downtown core.

"We want people to park on the perimeter and be able to be pedestrians in our downtown," Pease said. "Part of the goal is to have these distributed along the edges."

Establishing a bona fide Cultural Arts District is another chief reason for the council's continued support of the garage.

The planned 205-seat SLO Rep Theatre—which can only be built once the city finishes construction on the garage—is expected to bring 50,000 people downtown annually. It will neighbor the SLO History Museum, Children's Museum, and Museum of Art.

"That's what's going to enable our arts and culture district to thrive," Pease said. "I just don't think we can build a theater and not have adjacent parking. Otherwise, honestly, I would be rethinking it and thinking about pulling the plug."

Alternatives to moving forward with the project aren't any more attractive, council members said.

"I've asked about what the ramifications would be of changing course now, and those are many," Councilmember Michelle Shoresman said. "If we decided to change the parameters of the parking structure at this late a time, we'd be looking at going back to architects and changing designs, and that would cost additional money."

As they commit to the garage project, City Council members emphasized that they are also looking at ways to lessen the blow of the parking rate increases.

The city is developing a "locals incentive" program that will continue offering, on a "limited" basis, one hour of free parking in garages for county residents. It's also capping structure rates at $3 per hour and not planning to raise rates on long-term parking permits, which are popular with downtown employees.

"I hope that that is helpful," Stewart said. "I don't want to harm our downtown businesses. I don't want to harm our local shoppers either."

Officials say that vertical construction on the parking garage is scheduled to start in September, with the city currently working to secure debt financing at the lowest rate possible.

Francis said that while it "doesn't feel good" to spend so much money on parking, she thinks the City Council is doing the right thing by following through on years of prior planning and investments.

"Essentially, you have decades of councils saying, 'Let's make the next council deal with this,'" she said. "I think it's going to be one of those things that when it's done, it's going to feel like, 'Ah, this corner of town is really special.'" Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

View Results

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