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SLO mayor: Parking loss is big issue in Chinatown project 

The city may also renegotiate land price

One of the less-discussed aspects of the plan for the Copeland brothers' massive Chinatown project in downtown SLO is that the city itself is the owner of nearly three-fourths of the land that would be used to construct the planned-for mix of retail, condo, restaurant, office, and hotel spaces.

click to enlarge METERS RUNNING OUT? :  Plans for the Chinatown project, a Copelands Properties effort that would include a mix of retail, restaurant, hotel, condo, office, and parking spaces, would eliminate the 143 metered public spots in these surface lots. Under the deal, the company could buy 1.5 acres of the city's land for the 2000 price of about $3 million. Mayor Dave Romero said the deal is likely to be reworked under current values. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • METERS RUNNING OUT? : Plans for the Chinatown project, a Copelands Properties effort that would include a mix of retail, restaurant, hotel, condo, office, and parking spaces, would eliminate the 143 metered public spots in these surface lots. Under the deal, the company could buy 1.5 acres of the city's land for the 2000 price of about $3 million. Mayor Dave Romero said the deal is likely to be reworked under current values.

# In all, the city owns about 1.5 acres of the 2.1 acres that are planned for the mixed-use center, which would occupy about 75 percent of the block bordered by Chorro, Palm, Morro, and Monterey streets.

The bulk of that land is made up of three street-level parking lots that now provide 143 public metered parking spaces and another 12 private spots. Although the plan envisions installing 200 new parking spots in underground garages, those spots wouldn't be available to the public, and a draft Environmental Impact Report warns that the number may not be sufficient for the project itself.

The public has until July 25 to comment on the report, which is now before the Planning Commission.

The city gave the Copelands the option to build the Chinatown project on the city's land in a deal that also allowed the city to build its new parking complex and a city offices building on Palm Street. It also included the development of the Copelands' completed Court Street Project.

Under the deal, according to Shelly Stanwyck, assistant city administrative officer, the Copelands would pay the city a total of $3,038,464 for the city land if they exercise the options at the last possible date, in May 2008.

That price comes from a land assessment made in 2000, but land prices downtown and across the region have escalated sharply since.

Mayor Dave Romero said the deal is likely to be renegotiated to rates that reflect current land values, since the Copelands are not likely to be able to attain building permits on the complex project by the option date.

"We'll probably be renegotiating the option shortly, in the next few months," Romero said.

Calls to Copeland Properties and architect Mark Rawson for comment were not returned.

Councilmember Christine Mulholland, who has been consistently critical of the project since it was first discussed more than seven years ago, said she'd welcome a renegotiation.

"I believe that the city got ripped off in the previous deal with the Copelands and I want to see a much stronger deal this time if we're going to sell that property," she said. "I firmly believe the city needs to be very clear about what it wants when it makes a sale of its property."

While the project has come up for scrutiny on various grounds, ranging from whether its 78-foot top height could block views to the possibility that Native American remains exist at the site, parking is likely to be one of the hottest issues for the public, Romero said.

"That's one of the crux issues we'll be dealing with: How much are we willing to sacrifice in terms of available public parking downtown in order to bring in a new development for the city?" he said.

The draft environmental report notes that the city's surrounding multi-level parking structures which now have excess spots wouldn't be able to accommodate all of the spots that would be lost.

While the report notes that people prefer surface-level lots where they're available, Romero noted that the city's downtown plan envisions converting the downtown area's surface-level lots into multi-tiered structures wherever possible.

"It's just more efficient use of the land," he said. "In the long range for the city, we simply can't afford the luxury of using surface-only parking in the downtown area."

Still, the environmental report describes the uses planned for the Chinatown project as "potentially inconsistent" with the downtown plan, because it calls for parking there.

Romero said the Copelands could be required to pay into the city's in-lieu parking fund to make up for the lost spots.

The city's current in-lieu fee is $12,456 per space, according to the report, but both Mulholland and Romero said that fee doesn't approach the cost of constructing a new space in a structure. Those costs can reach $40,000 per spot. Romero said the city may revisit those prices.

Ryan Duclos, whose black pickup was parked in the surface lots on a recent weekday, said he'd miss the lots for one simple reason: "My truck wouldn't fit in the parking structures," the 19-year-old said. He explained that not only will a three-quarter ton v10 with a CB antenna not be able to turn in the tiered lots, the antenna won't fit.

"We're in an agrarian area," he said. "If we don't have surface lots to park in, it's going to be hard for people who drive trucks to come here."

In addition to the parking spaces, gone will be the Palm Street Building (former site of Decco's Annex and one-time home of Chow Novo), the city-owned Public Works Building, the Bello's building, the former Sauer Baker and Pier 1 building, and the Cornerstone building and former Blackstone Hotel.

Remaining on the block will be the buildings that now house the Palm Theater, Red Hot Pottery, Bliss Day Spa, Adobe Realty, several residential buildings and, at the other corner, Bladerunner Day Spa. The fa¡ade of the Moondoggies/Muzio's building is to be incorporated into the project, although it would be topped with a third story.

Romero said the missing spots could be made up if the city goes forward with plans for a new parking structure near the not-yet-opened Children's Museum. That would cost a minimum of $12 million, according to estimates presented to the City Council earlier this year. If the project moved ahead promptly, it could be finished in 2012, but officials have questioned the need for it.

The Chinatown project must still make it through the Planning Commission, which must review and approve the environmental report and could require changes in the project's design. It then must go before the City Council, where Romero said he expects a series of hearings and doesn't anticipate a decision before fall.

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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