Someday, the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo could be occupied by driverless cars ushering people to and from work, restaurants, events, and shopping — with little need for nearby parking.
But until that day, the city sees an increasing need for downtown parking, so officials are moving forward with a proposed $23 million structure at the corner of Palm and Nipomo streets — across the street from Mission Prep High School — to serve the current, less technologically advanced world of human drivers.
The proposal envisions:
▪ Up to 445 new parking spaces on five levels with a maximum structure height of 50 feet;
▪ 5,000 square feet of commercial space on two levels fronting Nipomo Street;
▪ A new three-story, 23,841-square-foot building for the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre (along the Monterey Street frontage).
In comparison, the parking garage at 919 Palm St. adjacent to the City-County Library, built in 2006, is five levels above ground (one level below) and provides 242 spaces. The garage at 842 Palm St. has about 420 spaces and the 871 Marsh St. structure has approximately 520 spaces.
On Wednesday, the Planning Commission will take public input and provide feedback to address the proposal’s possible environmental impacts, including traffic, noise, historical resources, views, and air pollution, among others.
The proposed project would break ground in late 2019 or 2020, though several planning steps would still need to be satisfied first. The new structure would replace the existing 77-space surface parking lot.
An 828-page draft environmental impact report highlights anticipated effects on the community and how they could best be addressed.
Scott Lee, the city’s parking services manager, said that a new structure would allow people to park on the periphery of downtown and walk to the city’s center to shop, dine, and enjoy Farmers Market, among other activities.
“The city’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions and go more green,” Lee said. “If people are driving in and looking for a spot and going in circles, that clogs up downtown and adds more emissions. With this project, they’d be able to park and walk right in without having to search for parking.”
Lee said the large-scale garage is needed to accommodate a growing demand for downtown parking, created by visitors, workers, and new housing and business development in the area, such as the Chinatown project, the Garden Street Terraces project, the Creamery renovations and the new SLO Brew location.
The city, which is the applicant for the project, projects an up-front payment of $6 million in revenues generated by in-lieu parking fees and parking reserve funds, with debt financing expected to cover the rest of the anticipated $23 million cost, Lee said.
No General Fund money would pay for the structure.
The nonprofit San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre would separately design and fund its theater project.
“Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting isn’t to discuss whether the project is appropriate for the city or in the right location,” city Associate Planner Rachel Cohen said. “We’re just really focused on looking at the impacts it could have.”
The City Council ultimately will decide whether the project fits with the city’s vision.
Eric Meyer, a former planning commissioner who also helped to draft the Downtown Concept Plan, wrote a letter to the city saying he’d like to see studies updated to account for a potential future of autonomous vehicles.
“I believe the studies used to ascertain the need for this parking garage are outdated,” Meyer wrote. “... Autonomous car usage and behavior will not be anything like the current usage patterns. This is not discussed in determining the need for this garage.”
Some industry leaders project “fully autonomy” could be 10 to 15 years away, but Lee said he believes that autonomous cars aren’t as imminent as some predict.
“I don’t see autonomous vehicles taking over anytime soon,” Lee said. “I don’t see them taking over in 30 years, and realistically it’s likely to be in the next 50 years. There are too many subtleties in driving that will make them difficult to design safely in the near feature.”
Some community members also have suggested that the parking structure be built with the ability to be retrofitted for other uses, such as workforce housing, if driverless cars become the norm and those vehicles can be easily stored outside of the downtown.
But Lee said a design with options to reuse the building would cost an additional $5 million, raising the total to close to $30 million. A developer likely would want to demolish a concrete building anyway instead of retrofitting the facility for a use such as housing, Lee said.
Alan Cooper of the group Save Our Downtown wrote the commission a letter calling into question whether the traffic has been properly analyzed taking into account the Broad Street bicycle planning, as well as a potential closure of the nearby Broad Street dogleg next to Mission Plaza, which has been considered as part of the Mission Plaza Concept Plan.
“Moreover, the construction cost may be too low, and it’s fiscally irresponsible,” Cooper wrote. “... This money (were it available) would be better spent on alternative transportation systems.”
Community member Davis Foley wrote to the city questioning whether housing should be more the city’s focus of the land use.
“The city needs more residents living, not just parking, downtown so that they can walk and bike to work, entertainment, and local businesses,” Foley wrote. “For example, why not wrap the garage with the 5,000 sf of commercial space on the ground floor, plus 50 housing units, and the SLO Little Theatre, and then use the remaining space for parking.”
The public comment period for the project’s draft environmental impact report (EIR) runs until Wednesday. Cohen’s email for submissions is email@example.com.
The draft EIR identifies five impacts on the site that are considered “significant and unavoidable,” including the project’s size and scale and removal of historic resources.
The structure would require the removal of two historic homes at 610 and 614 Monterey Street. The 1930s dwelling at 614 Monterey St. is a rarity in Luis Obispo because it is the only adobe of its time period within the Downtown Historic District.
But neither home is “associated with events or individuals significant in the history or development of San Luis Obispo,” according to the draft EIR completed by Rincon Consultants Inc.
Three other small residences also would be demolished, but they’re not deemed historic.
The City Council could override the significant impacts if it felt the proposed structure’s benefit to the community and economy outweighed those impacts.
The next steps for the project include reviews by the Architectural Review Commission, the Planning Commission and City Council. A General Plan amendment also would be needed for the project to move forward.