City-owned property nixed as site of proposed homeless center in SLO

A property on Prado Road between the Sunset Drive-In and San Luis Obispo corporation yard.
A property on Prado Road between the Sunset Drive-In and San Luis Obispo corporation yard. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In the ongoing controversy over where to build a proposed homeless services center in San Luis Obispo, a fleeting hope for conciliation recently centered on a parcel of city-owned property surrounding the Prado Day Center.

However, that is not an option, according to a recent internal city memo, which made it clear the city would need that land for future expansion of its water reclamation facility.

That narrows the center’s location to two options: the planned location at the vacant lot next to the county Department of Social Services on South Higuera Street, or a privately owned property on Prado Road being pushed by a group of business people opposed to the Higuera location.

The center’s plans call for 200 beds, a commercial kitchen, laundry facilities, showers, lockers and storage, offices for caseworkers, a classroom for children and community and multipurpose rooms.

Influential business leaders, led by Bill Thoma, publicly criticized and expressed concerns about the center being built at South Higuera because they felt it would directly impact nearby businesses.

Those concerns halted the capital campaign just as it went public to raise the funds to build the center.

Because of those concerns, the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County has now agreed to pay for a costly engineering study to evaluate the constraints of the Prado Road property.

However, the funds to do that are nonexistent.

CAPSLO did not pursue the approximately eight-acre Prado Road property in the past because of barriers to construction: It is on a floodplain, there are high-voltage utility lines bisecting the property, and a portion of it will be needed for the Prado Road overpass.

“It has been looked at in the past, and the issues that always develop are significant,” said Jim Famalette, chief operating officer of CAPSLO. “This time we will have an engineering study done to more completely delineate all the issues that would have to be met and the potential cost of those.”

The study will cost between $80,000 to $100,000, said Famalette. It is not yet known how that will be paid for, he said.

CAPSLO has $30,000 for the project. It will likely ask the city, county and the business community opposed to the existing site to help raise the remaining money for the study, said Famalette.

An additional barrier is that the property would cost about $2 million to buy. The South Higuera site was given to CAPSLO by the county for the project.

Thoma acknowledges that the constraints of the Prado property he favors are costly, but says that it is a better location because it is further away from businesses and is a bigger property then the one on South Higuera already acquired by CAPSLO.

“This has to be a community-wide effort,” said Thoma. “Without that, it is not going to happen. I have always said that if there is a will, there is a way.”

A dispute between county Supervisor Adam Hill and Thoma over the two locations helped fuel the controversy in December when their disagreement over where the center should be located turned into a public personal attack.

Both Hill and Thoma later pledged to work together and hinted at a possible compromise. However, that compromise — the city property at the water reclamation facility — proved fruitless.

The city’s water treatment plant occupies 37 acres of the 48 acres owned by the city. A major upgrade, anticipated to cost $65 million, will begin in the coming years and require more of that land.

“Having the latitude, discretion and flexibility of that site will benefit the ratepayers who shoulder the cost,” said Community Development Director Derrick Johnson.

Famalette said the homeless services center remains a priority despite the setbacks.

“This is a community issue, not a CAPLSO issue,” said Famalette. “We want the community to be totally supportive of the decision that is made. If there is an opportunity to have a larger site that has some benefits to it because of size and location, then we will explore that to see if it is viable. The important thing is making sure that the entire community wants to do this project.”