Expanded Mission Plaza, bigger Little Theatre could be in SLO's future

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in downtown San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With a renewed emphasis on downtown San Luis Obispo, local leaders will be focusing over the next two years on two long-held goals for the city: Expanding Mission Plaza and strengthening a cultural corridor in that part of town.

For years, local officials have supported creating a cultural corridor along part of Monterey Street through the heart of downtown, anchored by Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. But concerns about street closures and traffic dogged the discussion on extending the plaza.

The cultural area currently encompasses the mission, San Luis Creek and several museums that draw families and well-heeled patrons: San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.

The cultural corridor could stretch to Nipomo Street, if expansion plans move ahead for one of the city’s leading arts organizations.

Little Theatre plans

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre is contemplating building a larger home mere blocks from its current Morro Street location. The nonprofit theater company, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2016, is in the early planning stages on the facility, according to Kevin Harris, San Luis Obispo Little Theatre managing artistic director.

“We’re ready to inhabit a new space,” he said.

The project would coincide with the city’s plans to construct a parking structure at Palm and Nipomo streets.

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre could relocate to part of the lot bordering Monterey Street, city officials told the San Luis Obispo City Council on Tuesday.

The theater moved to its current location at 888 Morro St. in 1993. It leases the 11,000-square-foot building, which previously housed the San Luis Obispo City-County Library, from the city.

According to Harris and Patty Thayer, communications and development director at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, the city uses 25 percent to 30 percent of the building for storage space and for a bathroom, shower and gym that city employees use.

Conditions at the theater have been cramped for years, Harris said, but they’ve grown more onerous as the company has stepped up its performing schedule.

“We’re ready to grow, and we’re ready to do more shows,” Harris said. “We just have nowhere to put them at this point.”

More than three years ago, Harris said San Luis Obispo Little Theatre learned that the city’s preliminary plans to transform the parking lot property included a new theater facility. About two years ago, after receiving an unofficial go-ahead from the city, the nonprofit began preliminary work on designing the new theater and started laying the groundwork for a capital campaign, he added.

According to Harris, conditions are ripe for growth.

“We have been constantly selling out for the last two seasons,” he said, adding that the company saw 93 percent average capacity during its recent 2014-15 season.

Thayer said San Luis Obispo Little Theatre is working with Arroyo Grande architect Bryce Engstrom, a member of the theater’s board of directors, on designing a new facility. The theater would likely double in size, she said, growing from 100 seats to as many as 250.

In addition to presenting its own shows there, San Luis Obispo Little Theatre anticipates opening the facility to community performing arts groups to rent, Harris and Thayer said.

Fundraising efforts on the project could begin in earnest in September, when San Luis Obispo Little Theatre is expected to sign a memorandum of agreement with the city, Harris said.

The theater hopes to start construction on its new home on land leased from the city in about four years, Harris said, adding that the theater’s timeline isn’t necessarily dependent on the city’s timeline.

Construction on the parking structure at Palm and Nipomo streets, which would replace a surface lot with 77 metered parking spaces, likely wouldn’t happen before 2017.

The structure would include about 445 parking spaces and cost an estimated $23 million.

The City Council will hold a study session this fall to discuss financing and an updated schedule for the project.

Extending Mission Plaza

In the meantime, the council will again explore expanding Mission Plaza — an idea that was last raised and rejected about 13 years ago — and will update a concept plan with a vision for the downtown area.

In January, the City Council adopted its major city goals for the upcoming 2015-17 fiscal year budget; a focus on downtown made the list of second-tier objectives.

The extension of Mission Plaza, achieved by closing Broad Street where it passes by the mission, was an idea first raised in 1949, according to past Tribune articles.

In 2002, a nearly united City Council voted not to close Broad Street to expand Mission Plaza, with then-Councilman Ken Schwartz casting the dissenting vote.

At that time, the city spent $63,000 figuring out how it could block the so-called “dog leg” where Broad Street joins Monterey Street briefly and then continues between the mission and the history center.

Homeowners and business owners were strongly opposed, fearing that traffic would be forced onto nearby streets, and that more plaza space would draw homeless people, not families.

The current City Council could face the same questions when it considers various options.

“The idea is to transform the dog leg so that it’s really a physical extension of Mission Plaza,” Community Development Director Derek Johnson said. “We haven’t figured out the details. We’ve discussed that maybe it’s closed for events, maybe it’s closed permanently or seasonally.”

He said city planners will look to the decade-old designs and possibly refine some past options to present to the council for discussion.

The dog-leg section of Broad Street is occasionally closed for events, including Via dei Colori SLO, an Italian street painting festival, and Children’s Day in the Plaza.