SLO has a housing shortage and climate crisis — another parking garage won’t help

The more I’m involved in master planning and environmental impact reports, the less faith I have that they’ll produce creative solutions or prevent disastrous mistakes.

The process becomes the product, the document a juggernaut, and for the next 10 or 20 years, any officials who don’t want to do something present themselves as bound down by these reams of officialese, like Jacob Marley’s ghost dragging around his chain of “cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses.”

If you were so bold as to ask, “Why can’t we do … ?” then “the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge” (you) “held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon.”

But the world’s changing fast, and we have to turn on a dime to keep up. We have a housing shortage and climate crisis. Mouthing pieties hasn’t improved things.

The city of SLO’s Parks and Rec Department is writing a new master plan. (Hint: a lot more trees, fast.) Simultaneously, plans for a new parking structure at Nipomo and Palm Streets are being reviewed by city advisory bodies. These processes have been going on for years.

Parking garage plan

The garage’s EIR was reviewed at the beginning of 2018. And two years later, why — with the world literally melting, and with buildings, transport, and construction producing 61% of CO2 — are we still planning to construct a big new building to encourage people to drive to downtown SLO? Why not build walkable, affordable, micro apartments there instead? Small, not sprawl? Because we’re held down by Marley’s chain of paper.

Meanwhile, Copenhagen has just achieved 49% of commuter trips by bicycle, versus 27% by car, 18% by public transport and 6% by foot. They’ve done it by increasing bicycle infrastructure, which is incredibly cheap and sustainable and produces huge public health benefits, and by not increasing car infrastructure.

The irony is the city plans to hide its huge concrete parking garage from the Downtown Historic District behind a new SLO Repertory Theater; the SLO Rep plans to demolish the district’s historic Heyd Adobe to make room for its back office and restrooms; while Louis Heyd (pronounced hide) hand built that modest adobe in 1939 as a gesture of environmentalism, from indigenous earth, which could warm his family by absorbing ambient solar power.

The EIR gave a barely cursory assessment of the Heyd, San Luis Obispo’s only 20th-century adobe. Instead, it just set up a Hobson’s choice of tearing down the adobe or not building the theater.

Save the Heyd

The theater, proposed as a few blank boxes covered with tile — a bit like a series of restrooms turned inside out — could well use the Heyd to hide it, building around the adobe or relocating it on site. An undemolished Heyd could provide history, housing and environmental inspiration, besides sequestering about 1,200 gallons of oil, since it was built out of Bitudobe, an adobe and bitumen mixture that brought the Adobe Revival to the middle class. Thanks to the leadership of Community Development Director Michael Codron and Council Member Andy Pease, the city may well turn on a dime to save the Heyd. (The plan is scheduled to go to the City Council on Nov. 5.)

This would expiate the last adobe the city tore down, in 1972: the Murray on Mission Plaza, leaving just the lean-to. I recently asked our then-mayor, the late Ken Schwartz, why. “It boiled down to nobody cared what happened, nobody wanted to ... put up any money, nobody wanted to step forward and organize anything.”

It’s one thing to save a historic building, another to use it so it survives. There are 12 adobes left in the city. Seven are privately owned: Sauer, Sauer-Adams, Hays-Latimer, Mancilla-Freitas, Andrews, Dallidet and the Mission. Five are city owned: La Loma, Rosa Butrón, Rodriguez, Murray and Heyd. Most of the private owners occupy theirs and make them regularly accessible to the public. The city-owned ones have been shut up, vacant, for decades. What remains of the Murray is used to stow equipment. The Rodriguez, restored with $300,000 of city and developer money almost 20 years ago, sits empty and signless in a nameless park. The Rosa Butrón, which 30 years ago the city agreed to open as a historic house and park, displays only NO TRESPASSING signs.

The city spends $200,000 a year maintaining its sole historic house museum, the Jack House and Garden, but opens the house for only 30 public hours, equivalent of a day. Contrast the private Cass House in Cayucos, which in a year hosts 400 overnight guests and over 20,000 restaurant and event visitors. Contrast the Sauer-Adams Adobe, where I’m lucky to have an office. Its yarn shop, walking tours, book readings, art shows, tango parties and yarn-bombed Giving Tree create a constant stream of people and don’t cost the city a penny.

Two truisms of city planning: Build parking, and cars will fill it up; leave historic buildings empty, and they will fall down. Should we wait for an immense, innocuous plan? Or is it time to turn on a dime? Privatize what the city won’t utilize?

We can’t construct our way to net-zero. We can preserve our way there, be smarter with our resources of nature, space, and buildings. We can care.

James Papp is an architectural historian, co-owner of heritage tourism company SLO Walkabout, and member and former chair of the city of San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee.

This Viewpoint was updated to correct the EIR’s references to the Heyd Adobe.

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