The developer of the Chinatown construction project in downtown San Luis Obispo has decided not to remove a Mission-era aqueduct built by the Chumash, after a public outcry to preserve the 250-year-old channel.
The plan is to showcase the aqueduct’s historical significance with some type of interpretive exhibit along a walkway once the mixed-use development is built.
“We’re going to preserve the aqueduct,” project architect Mark Rawson said. “It will be visible to the public and part of a feature along the paseo.”
The aqueduct, which is believed to have been constructed by the Chumash under the direction of padres at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, was unearthed during the early phase of construction of the downtown development, which will include a hotel as well as residential and commercial space.
We’re going to preserve the aqueduct. It will be visible to the public and part of a feature along the paseo.
Mark Rawson, Chinatown project architect
The developer, Copeland Properties, had considered the option of removing the channel while documenting its existence for a historical record. But Rawson said the intent always had been to try to preserve at least some of it. It was a misconception that the developer was trying to remove the entire channel as construction moved forward earlier this week, he said.
“The reality is that we’d considered some impact on the aqueduct but not to the extent that people believed,” Rawson said. “Now, we’re moving forward with no impacts on the aqueduct.”
Rawson said he’s not sure exactly how the historical structure will be showcased to the public. The development is being built on a city block between Palm and Monterey streets, one block from the Mission. One idea is to leave unpaved an area along a pathway between Palm and Monterey streets, where the public would be able to walk by and view the historic stone and ceramic infrastructure.
It’s uncertain whether any kind of casing or protective material would be used.
There is nothing like this anywhere else in the city or county.
Barry Price, local archaeologist
In order to preserve the aqueduct, the slope also will need to be shored up to stabilize the area. The shoring is subject to city building permit requirements.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, seven members of the local history community, including archaeologist Barry Price, architect Eric Meyer and curator Eva Ulz, as well as Northern Chumash Tribal Chairwoman Mona Tucker and tribe member Violet Cavanaugh, lobbied the council to keep the aqueduct in place.
“I would like to see the archaeological features preserved and interpreted for the public,” Price said in an email to The Tribune on Monday. “The aqueduct and associated archaeological features are highly unusual, and are exceptional representatives of the earliest history of our city. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the city or county.”
On Monday, James Papp, who sits on the Cultural Heritage Committee, rushed to the site, fearing backhoes would damage the aqueduct. He had coordinated with Chumash leaders who have monitored the construction as part of the project’s conditions for development.
Rawson said the exposed section of the aqueduct wasn’t touched, however. The concerns still led to the public discussion on the issue.
On Thursday, Papp said, “I commend the City Council for listening so well not only to the voices of this community but to the voices of our past. ... The preservation of the Old Mission Aqueduct will be a source of pride for this community and for the Yak Tityu Tityu (Chumash) long, long after all of us involved are dead, and that is the real triumph here.”