Editorial: Chinatown improvements will require action by city

It took several tries to get there, but the Copeland family’s scaled-down Chinatown project approved by the San Luis Obispo City Council last week is finally the right fit for the downtown.

It will breathe new life into an area that’s long been underutilized, and it will give a much-needed economic boost to the city by adding hotel rooms, retail and office space, restaurants and condos.

We do have a concern about parking for the project — more on that later — but overall, this is a big step in the right direction, and it’s especially significant that a developer would be prepared to invest so heavily in the city during this economic downturn.

The final product is a credit to the applicants, the City Council, advisory board members and city staff, as well as to the critics who opposed the original plan for a much larger project that would have destroyed a couple of historic buildings on the site.

We believe it’s an especially smart move to retain the historic Blackstone Hotel and Sauer Bakery. In this era of ubiquitous Banana Republics and Pottery Barns, the city’s historic buildings help it stand out from generic shopping districts, and it makes sense to preserve as many of them as possible.

We’re especially excited to see these two structures restored to their former incarnations. The Blackstone Hotel and Sauer Bakery have undergone so much remodeling over the years that they’ve morphed into bland storefronts that add little to the ambiance of the downtown, and it will be a pleasure to see their charm and beauty restored.

The scaled-down size of the project is another marked improvement. No building will be taller than 50 feet, while in the original plan, some were as tall as 75 feet.

While we aren’t opposed to height per se — it makes sense in some locations — a massive project across the street from the Mission could have been overwhelming. The smaller project will blend in nicely with nearby businesses and will complement Mission Plaza.

While we applaud the improvements, we have one lingering concern about the Chinatown Project: It will eat up 155 public parking spaces on city lots to be sold to the Copelands. The project will include a private, 74-space garage for hotel customers and condo residents, but that does little for downtown shoppers who sometimes have a tough time finding convenient parking as it is, especially on busy weekends.

That said, we have no problem with phasing out surface parking lots in the downtown. They are an inefficient use of space, and yes, an eyesore. We believe the Chinatown Project will be a much better use of the space; however, alternative parking must be provided to make up for the loss.

The Copelands will be required to pay parking “in lieu” fees to help finance construction of a new parking garage, but it will be up to the city to follow through and replace the parking in a timely manner.

The city plans to build a four-story, 400-space parking garage across from the Children’s Museum, which is tentatively scheduled for construction in 2014-15.

City staff hopes that project will be finished by the time the Chinatown Project opens and creates a demand for more spaces.So do we.

We repeat: This development will be a positive addition to the downtown — especially this new and improved version.

But if visitors become frustrated by a lack of parking downtown, it isn’t just the Chinatown Project that will suffer; all downtown merchants will be affected.

Even if it means moving up the construction timeline, the city should commit to having the parking structure in place by the time the Chinatown Project is complete.