San Luis Obispo mayor looks back on an exciting, challenging 2015 for the city

San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx stands in Mission Plaza. The San Luis Obispo City Council last year started the process to develop an updated “downtown concept plan” and will explore ways to expand Mission Plaza.
San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx stands in Mission Plaza. The San Luis Obispo City Council last year started the process to develop an updated “downtown concept plan” and will explore ways to expand Mission Plaza. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx, 2015 was an “exciting, challenging and productive” year for the city, with some major projects completed or well underway, a rental inspection program launching, a new plan to upgrade open-space areas, and ongoing efforts to improve relations between permanent residents and their student neighbors.

Among the challenges in 2015: at least eight people were injured last March after a roof collapsed during a massive “St. Fratty’s Day” party in a residential neighborhood near Cal Poly, the city parted ways with former police Chief Steve Gesell, and the council aired some tensions during a daylong retreat in May.

“In terms of the City Council — that calmed down,” Marx recalled during an interview in her City Hall office in early January. “We had some conflict and discord on the council, and we had a good retreat and we were able to work more collaboratively. So that was satisfying.”

On a more positive note, the city moved forward on numerous projects in 2015: the bulk of the massive Los Osos Valley Road widening project was completed; Sinsheimer pool, closed in September for repairs, is expected to reopen Jan. 18; the San Luis Obispo Skate Park opened in February; and the city dedicated its World Trade Center Memorial on the 14th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

Overall it was a good year. I’m looking forward to 2016. There are a lot of things happening.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx

“The skate park was a giant high point, in that it was something that young people brought forward as a need through the community forum and something that council was really in favor of and just couldn’t find a way to finance,” Marx said.

The council also focused some of its efforts on improving quality-of-life issues for residents who live near Cal Poly, such as concerns about noise, parking and parties.

“One thing that stands out is the St. Fratty’s Day catastrophe,” Marx recalled. “Thank God no one got killed.”

A few months after the party, the council made changes to its rules on unruly gatherings and approved an agreement with Cal Poly to allow university police to issue citations for city violations within a one-mile radius of campus.

There are signs that a crackdown on rowdy behavior is having an impact: San Luis Obispo police have issued 10 citations for unruly gatherings since changes went into effect in August — eight issued to party hosts and two to property owners — compared with 12 citations issued in the previous five years.

Marx said the city has been working more closely with Cal Poly to “to try affect the student ‘culture,’ so to speak.” Part of that is making students aware of city ordinances for parking, trash and noise so they can avoid problems.

Marx said she thinks the results so far have been positive.

“I think this fall quarter was tamer than it’s been for years.”

What’s ahead in 2016

Many of the programs and work started in 2015 continue into the new year.

A rental inspection program, aimed at curbing blight and unsafe living conditions, is getting underway, with property owners required to register their units between now and April.

Construction on the massive Los Osos Valley Road interchange project is expected to wrap up by this summer.

And city staff will see how their storm preparations paid off with El Niño-driven weather expected to continue this winter. Thanks to the most recent rains, Laguna Lake — which dried up last year — has some water it in again.

Despite some requests from residents to dredge the lake now, the council’s goal is to have a “shovel-ready” project by the end of the its two-year 2015-17 financial plan.

Marx said she’s heard increased concerns about a loss of parking downtown, with two major developments — Garden Street Terraces and Chinatown — removing more than 200 city parking spaces.

Marx said the city developed a policy decades ago to build parking garages around the periphery of downtown and use the surface lots for infill projects — but now that the developments are occurring, “People are saying, ‘What happened to my parking lot?’”

With that concern in mind, the council will receive an update Jan. 19 on a parking structure planned on a surface parking lot at Palm and Nipomo streets.

Other discussions in 2016 will center on the process to update a concept plan for downtown, a plan to expand Mission Plaza, and a master plan for the city’s public art program.

In addition, Marx plans to run again for mayor in November.

First elected to the council in 1998, she is now serving her third two-year term as mayor. Two council seats held by Councilmen Dan Carpenter and John Ashbaugh are also up for election.

“I’m looking forward to 2016,” Marx said. “There are a lot of things happening.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO