Stop griping about parking in downtown SLO. That’s not the biggest problem

Major parking garage and theater project in the works in SLO

A garage project at Palm and Nipomo streets — across the street from Mission Prep High School — is planned for San Luis Obispo. The project calls for five levels of parking and up to 445 parking spaces, 5,000 square feet of commercial space, and a
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A garage project at Palm and Nipomo streets — across the street from Mission Prep High School — is planned for San Luis Obispo. The project calls for five levels of parking and up to 445 parking spaces, 5,000 square feet of commercial space, and a

Yes, there are times when it’s tough to find a parking space in downtown San Luis Obispo.

For instance, on Farmers Market nights when crowds are so thick that foot traffic slows to a shuffle, during summer Concerts in the Plaza, and on those hectic last few shopping days before Christmas.

Under normal circumstances, though, it’s possible to find an empty space with minimal aggravation.

Yet lack of parking is one of the key reasons people give for avoiding downtown, and in a recent story by Tribune reporter Nick Wilson, several business owners said a parking shortage — along with expensive rents and ongoing construction — was at least partly to blame for recent closures of shops and restaurants.

But there’s a disconnect between perception and reality. (We will pause here while you shake your head in disbelief.)

There are 2,869 public parking spaces downtown — not counting private parking at businesses and offices — and while choice spots on the street are in high demand, there’s almost always spots available in any one of the three parking structures.

Here are the average daily occupancy rates the three parking garages for 2016-17, the most recent data available:

871 Marsh St. (520 spaces): 65%

842 Palm St. (415 spaces): 52%

919 Palm St. (242 spaces): 84%

And listen to this: The average daily occupancy at the city’s largest surface lot at Nipomo and Palm is consistently below 50%, according to Deputy Public Works Director Tim Bochum. In other words, more often than not, fewer than half the spaces there are filled.

But here’s the thing about parking: Just because spaces are available doesn’t mean we’re going to like them.

They may be too far away from our destination.

Or a couple of cases of bad parking karma — like getting boxed in between a Hummer and a Suburban — may have soured us on a particular parking structure or lot.

Or, you forgot to bring quarters for the meter (not all downtown meters take credit cards).

For the most part, there are workarounds to those problems: For instance, keep a stash of quarters in your car, or go downtown early in the day, when choice spots are still available.

As for construction — another pet peeve — it’s not that hard to cross a street to avoid a construction site, is it?

In other words, there’s got to be more going on here.

Complaints about parking and/or construction could be shorthand for other issues — issues like homelessness and traffic and a loss of familiar fixtures in downtown, like Forden’s, Ann’s and Marshalls Jewelers.

Some downtown property owners are proposing to address at least some of those concerns with an ambassador/beautification program funded with a special tax that would generate $800,000 per year. Uniformed ambassadors would give directions, help visitors find parking and help connect homeless people to services.

If property owners want to invest in an ambassador program, fine. It’s their money. But it might be better spent augmenting homeless services rather than directing homeless people to services that may not fit their needs.

It’s also important for downtown leaders to take additional steps to get people to want to come downtown.

Some back-of-the-napkin ideas:

  • Borrow successful strategies from big cities and scale them down: Build a mini version of Seattle’s Pike Place. An iconic sculpture like the Wall Street bull or the Chicago bean. Have a couple of those downtown ambassadors lead guided walking tours on weekends. Give them flags to hold aloft to build interest.
  • Cal Poly offers adult extension courses in topics like wine appreciation, foreign language and literature on its main campus. Why not offer them downtown? It would be less intimidating for people unfamiliar with the campus, and would mean more foot traffic for shops and restaurants.
  • Make better use of public spaces like the County Government Center and City Hall. There were standing-room-only crowds for last year’s candidate forums held at the Board of Supervisors Chambers. Sponsor expert speakers on topics like climate change, health care, affordable housing. Or bring in a popular author. Again, we shouldn’t have to schlep out to Cuesta or Cal Poly for intellectual stimulation.
  • Build on our food, wine and beer culture. Have organized progressive dinner nights, with the starter at one restaurant; the main at another, and dessert at a third. Lead food tours. Work a deal with the Madonna Inn to offer tastes of iconic Pink Champagne and Black Forest cakes. Better yet, how about a Madonna Inn tea room downtown?
  • Expand shuttle service to connect major shopping districts.
  • Re-emphasize the joys of downtown shopping. Despite what we’ve heard about a retail apocalypse, people still spend most of their shopping dollars in brick and mortar stores. So make shopping an event. For instance, pick a night of the week to stay open late — not Thursdays when the throngs of farmers market goers make it hard to even window shop — when the merchandise can be the star of the show. Offer discounts. Or, even better, free parking.

Give us enough good reasons to go downtown, and even if we’re stuck parking on the top floor of the Marsh Street structure, we’ll be there.

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