Hype springs eternal in San Luis Obispo

May 9, 2023

Richard Schmidt


The news e-blast from San Luis Obispo city‘s department of propaganda announced the “long-awaited” 396-space downtown parking garage at Nipomo and Palm streets is about to start taking shape.

“Starting this week, the City . . . will begin . . . a new 163,000-square-foot parking structure designed to contribute to the overall vibrancy, livability, and culture of downtown San Luis Obispo for generations to come.”

“’We know many in our community are excited that this project is officially beginning. The City is happy to build the first new parking structure in downtown SLO in 20 years,’ . . . said City Manager Derek Johnson. ‘By investing in important pieces of public infrastructure like this one, we are one step closer to realizing our community’s vision for this part of the downtown core.’”

“Known as the Cultural Arts District Parking Structure,” the e-blast went on, this garage “is the first step to paving the way for a bustling and pedestrian-friendly Cultural Arts District” and “will ensure that downtown continues to serve as the cultural hub of San Luis Obispo.”

I don’t know about you, but all that leaves me a bit breathless — vibrancy, livability, culture, community vision, a bustling and pedestrian-friendly Cultural Arts District, cultural hub of the city, for generations to come. All because of a new garage. That’s some amazing garage!

How have we lived without it all this time?

The actual purpose of the e-blast is, by comparison to its hype, quite modest – to inform the public there will be interruptions to the use of a little-used city parking lot on part of the site while “vacant” adjacent buildings are demolished. Garage construction is months away.

But SLO city never misses an opportunity to spin the most minor matter with voluminous official talking points. From SLO city, we can depend upon one thing above all: Hype springs eternal.


This e-blast, one of many the city sends out every week, is the work of a city “communications” operation that didn’t exist till recently. First there was one on-staff “communications specialist,” then there were two, plus a contracted out-of-town outfit. That’s a lot of “public relations” firepower for a small city. It’s very effective at getting city hall’s version of things out to the public. And also at influencing the city council, who if asked would totally deny they’re manipulated that way (or in any other way!).

The idea is simple: you develop a set of talking points, keep repeating them at every opportunity, exclude, drown out or ignore other points of view, and righteously steamroll ahead, what this city cleverly calls “moving in the right direction.”

I mention the city council’s being manipulated because of something funny that happened a few weeks ago. There was notice of a 10-minute special council meeting at noon on a weekday, which in itself seemed odd, and the sole subject of said meeting was “city communications channels.” No staff report was attached, nor was there any other information to enlighten the public.

Having just seen someone blabbing confidential police information on Nextdoor and citing a new council member as the source, I was concerned “communications channels” at a special meeting might be a dressing down of the council member. So I emailed the city clerk asking what “communications channels” meant and pointing out the obvious fact such a vague meeting notice probably violated the Brown Act. Per usual, I got zero reply.

So I decided to listen in on the city’s website. When I couldn’t access this meeting via web, I immediately called the city clerk’s office to find out why and was told special meetings aren’t broadcast. I asked if they could tell me the subject of the meeting, and they said “city communications channels.” I asked what that means. “I have no idea” was their response.

Turns out the meeting’s subject was nothing more than a presentation by “communications” staff about what they do. And for that the council was dragged to a special mid-day meeting on a workday. That by itself seems like manipulation.

The repetitive and exclusive use of official city talking points in all forms of city communication, especially in staff reports to decision-makers, creates a totalitarian bubble around every policy matter. Often this leads to bad decisions, as contrasting solutions aren’t acknowledged, let alone explored. Sometimes, though, the line of an argument becomes so insanely stupid as to be funny.

One example was the council’s decision to contract out street sweeping, which is more costly in the long run but cheaper the first year, rather than purchase another sweeping machine and hire another sweeper, which is the more cost-effective choice. Greg Hermann, a $222,000 per year administrative type, wrote an agenda report stating contracting out sweeping was necessary to sweep bike lanes separately from streets, and proclaimed this a DEI issue. DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) being one of this council’s “major goals,” it must be referenced in every staff report as an official talking point.

The dumbness of this comment is that no contractor will pay its sweepers what the city pays in salary and benefits, and that a new city hire would likely be a “DEI person” whose life could truly be uplifted by good pay, health insurance and retirement. The council bought Hermann’s deal. But, hey, when talking points rule what looks a lot like hypocrisy’s often the result.


The parking garage e-blast was one-dimensional propaganda. It omitted more facts than it included. Here’s a sampler of its omissions:

• Housing destruction. The “vacant” buildings to be demolished are perfectly good housing – three houses, including an historic adobe and two “contributing” buildings listed on the city’s historic survey, and a small apartment building. “We need housing” being a city mantra, and housing — like DEI – being a top council priority, why is the city itself playing the bad guy by destroying decent housing? After purchasing the housing years ago, the city shut it down and it’s sat vacant rather than being put to use by, say, the housing authority.

Today, instead of moving houses elsewhere, giving this economical form of “new” housing a boost, the city will bulldoze them, wasting tons of perfectly good building materials and putting tons of carbon into the atmosphere. While decarbonization of the atmosphere is another top council priority – witness its ban on gas stoves –, it regularly gets superseded by talking point actions.

How much atmospheric carbon release are we talking about from demolishing these little houses? More than you’d suppose. Translated into easy to understand energy equivalents, the trashed embodied energy in the buildings and the carbon cost of their demolition is equivalent to gasoline that could drive a 50 mpg hybrid vehicle to the moon and back three times, if only there were a way. With demolition, that carbon’s just up in the air.

• A “long awaited” garage. Awaited by whom is the question. Certainly not by the parking public. The parking lot on the site has been a dud from day one and is the city’s most under-utilized parking. It was turned into a mainly by-permit parking place, and even that was underutilized till the city banned public parking on surrounding streets and started selling parking permits to Mission High School parkers who’d been parking those streets. Based on use history, this is not a prime location for a new garage. The city knows that, but prefers to steamroll ahead behind its artillery barrage of positive talking points.

• Cost. In addition to the millions already spent on land acquisition, planning, design, and preparation of bid and construction documents, construction is expected to cost $52 million, or $131,000 per car storage space, up from $31 million at the end of 2019. Whether that’s a wise expenditure is a matter of opinion.

What’s a fact, however, is that parking rates throughout downtown are soaring to pay off loans to build the garage. Many fear this will be one more factor that discourages shoppers and others from going downtown; that’s a cost the city doesn’t include in its soundbite propaganda that this garage will be key to guaranteeing “the overall vibrancy, livability, and culture of downtown San Luis Obispo for generations to come.”

• Oppressive design. This is a massive mid-rise industrial type building in a low-rise finely-textured historic district. That’s a tough fit at best. But to make things worse, the chosen street-facing design is a busy one with oversized meaningless vertical elements, like a multi-story arch beneath a huge pediment pasted to the facade, signalizing “entry” where there’s no entry, just a wall with an arch and pediment stuck on it.

The actual entry is a blank hole in the wall elsewhere. From the city’s design drawings, this building looks like it will stick out like a sore thumb and ruin the surrounding part of town. Here’s a sketch from the city’s website:

• Climate Change. SLO would like us to think it’s a climate champion leading the way to a decarbonized sustainable world. To the contrary, its climate actions are an incoherent mess of contradictory gestures that ignore what experts tell us is most important in order to avoid climate catastrophe: a focus on reducing today’s carbon emissions because the climate future will be fixed irreparably within a decade.

This garage shines a spotlight on the city’s intellectual climate competence. On the one hand we’re told driving cars to downtown is not the future, and thus, for example, downtown streets are being reconfigured so bicycles, of which there are few, get a large percentage of street surface dedicated to their exclusive use, but on the other hand we’re told this new garage is essential to assure “the overall vibrancy, livability, and culture of downtown San Luis Obispo for generations to come.” Huh? It can’t be both.

The city’s own operations appear unexposed to smart climate analysis. Portland cement, the cementitious ingredient of concrete, is a particular climate villain, whose manufacture alone accounts for 6% to 8% of global carbon emissions. Carbon-conscious cities seek to avoid use of concrete when possible, and use it judiciously only where essential. With a carbon-mitigation timeline of at least a century, concrete would seem appropriate only for projects with at least a century-long life expectancy. Yet it appears to be our city’s material of choice for everything, including its “carbon reducing” bicycle constructions, and its use goes on as if we were still in the 1950s.

So this garage is made of concrete, its carbon emissions today’s emissions. And its life expectancy? I guess that depends on which SLO hype-line we believe – the one about vehicles not being the future of downtown, or the one suggesting “vibrancy” for generations because we’ll have one more place to park downtown.

In any event, parking garages seem unlikely to meet the century-plus life justifying concrete construction in the era of climate change. Because a substantial portion of their floor area is ramped instead of level, they’re notoriously difficult to retrofit for other uses, and so demolition, rather than adaptive reuse, defines their future. Demolition of this garage in, say, 60 years defines climate villainy not climate leadership.

A quick Google search shows the propaganda e-release about the garage got picked up and repeated by many minor news sources. It was also sent directly to an unknown number of residents who sign up to receive such stuff. So, in terms of spreading the city’s expansive view of its own wonderfulness, one might say it was successful.

But is it in the city’s long-term best interests? How long can a city hype, inflate, twist and mislead like the city’s propaganda machine has been doing before the citizenry realize they’re being BS fed and cease to trust the city? And then how long does it take for the city to regain the trust it squandered by using propaganda to daily massage the inflated egos of city council and top staff?

I don’t think our city’s “communications” behavior is good for quality governance or democracy. The question is, will that behavior continue to get worse, or will the city wake up in time to save what credibility is has left?

Richard Schmidt is an architect and teacher, and served for 19 years as a volunteer on various city committees and commissions, including eight years on the Planning Commission, terms on the Waterways Planning Board, Environmental Quality Task Force, Election Regulations Committee, and Housing Element Task Force, and is sick about what his city has become in the last decade and a half.

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Does anyone really think that anyone on the “city council” has the qualifications to be making decisions regarding carbon emissions, climate change or any other complex, science based issue? Or course not. Just look at their actions. Pathetic.

This article has so many issues:

I’m actually excited for the new structure, actually the majority of people are since this has been a developing goal for many different councils with mandate of many elections. Anti-structure, “I wish we lived in the 50s” candidates consistently get blown out of the water. Democracy!!

I’m also very supportive of the City doing more to communicate with the public. Not everyone has the time consuming hobby of annoying public officials to find out what they can be angry about. It’s great to hear about how our government works for us.

You assume that council and people who support their pro-growth, pro-sustainability policies are dumb sheep while you’re the enlightened critic. How hubristic.

Please provide some evidence of this special meeting. It’s true I may have missed it. But it appears nowhere I can search online. This Brown Act violation could be big… If true. (Which it might be!)

Beautifully written! I would have simply said, “The city council, and city planners are morons, and this project is stupid enough to prove it.”

But, I like your style, Mr. Schmidt!

16 mill for bike lanes, 52mil for a parking garage, exsorbinet parking fees, while Old Town buildings sit empty and the homeless run rampant. Ambitious department heads pushing agendas. Its high time for city leaders to wake up and prioritize resources.

Like what, besides cutting your too low taxes, what concrete policy ideas do the critics suggest?

If you think that the taxes are too low,feel free to double or triple up on yours.

I’m personally a fan of replacing property taxes with land value taxes, and replacing corporate/income taxes with a sales-like Value Added Tax. Better for the market, easier for taxpayers. However my point, as usual, has been missed.

$16 million for bike lanes and removing 92 on-street parking spaces in a residential neighborhood, does the city think that a $52 million parking structure might make up for the parking they’re taking out of our neighborhood? Nonsense!

No. The structure will make up for downtown on-street parking that can be replaced with more space for pedestrians and outdoor business. A car parked in front of a restaurant is very inefficient, would you rather have one BMW with 2 Los Angelos, or 3 tables that seat 12 locals for breakfast. Not even close. The only on-street parking on Higuera and lower Monterey should be handicapped and temporary loading.

The (very popular) bikeway connecting downtown to Foothill will remove neighborhood parking to make it so more people can safely travel between downtown and north SLO – it sucks for some, but someone always gets the short straw anytime anything is constructed. If you read the reports the loss of parking is minimal.

When it comes to the costs, I agree, it’s a lot more money that I’d like it to be. But concrete and steel aren’t getting cheaper and these projects will help the downtown grow and SLO become more prosperous, infrastructure is important! No one is to blame for increased costs other than maybe the NIMBYs who delayed the project for years.

$16 million for unnecessary bike lanes that will wipe out on-street parking in residential neighborhoods, $52 million for a parking structure, and excessive parking fees in downtown San Luis Obispo? Nonsense! Great job Richard!

Well written and articulate article. Supports the belief of many that the high cost to build it and it’s associated increase in parking fees and parking fines will be the death knell of downtown economic vibrancy. Perhaps it’s ironical and or appropriate that it is located across the street from a mortuary.

$131k per parking space. If that space is used to facilitate commerce in SLO it may be worth it.

26 days a month x 12 months x $400 in retail sales downtown by all space users that day x 8.5% tax x 13 years of use = $137,904 in taxes generated by having it available.

It can be torn down in 40 years well paid for.

The downtown district business owners and economy in general benefit as a result.

It’s a rough calculation that may be optimistic. But even if it is, and the structure ends up being neutral or only slightly in the red, it will have been worth the prosperity it brings local businesses, a new theater, and more sidewalks or parklet space for businesses to thrive.

I can’t see why people downvote MrYans comment. He’s right!

Perhaps a free market argument in favor of good government creates cognitive dissonance for the CINO’s..conservatives in name only. .that frequent this site..

Good government, stays out of the free market.

I think those seem like best-case scenario numbers, and even then your own projections don’t factor in maintenance, so respectfully I don’t believe it will pencil out that way. But let’s assume for the purpose of this discussion that your numbers come to fruition. What is the cost of losing the essential character of the Mission historic district by razing the adobe and erecting this architectural bowel movement, which for all its cosmetic flourishes is just a gussied up Fuhrer Bunker? I went to Mission School in the 1970s and that Palm/Nipomo area used to be so charming. The current government and administration of the City wrap themselves in this phony cloak of progressiveness and “climate activism” but in reality they are simply tools for the recent transplant oligarchs who are wringing every last cent out of the Central Coast. “The grabbing hands grab all they can,” as the song goes. Everything that made this area so wonderful is being destroyed by people who claim to care. Sorry, I think this is just another City of SLO boondoggle which is being crammed down the throats of the residents by incurious, unserious, intellectually under-powered ideologues who most likely stand to profit somehow. The town I grew up in is dead and gone, and it’s a damn shame.

Ah yes, the very historic run down abandoned building, and beautiful surface parking lot. Really add to this towns charm, eh? You assume the worst of your political opponents. How are the unserious? On what basis do you accuse the majority of voters, council, and the city staff of corruption? Such anger. The only thing this town has lost is decency.


Fine. Halfway through my two evening pints, I’ll deign to punch down for a few minutes. Please reread my post. I most certainly did not “…accuse the majority of voters, council, and the city staff of corruption”. I do think that campaign contributions and in-kind contributions have a significant impact on the decisions the Council takes. If you knew the history, you’d know that the only reason the adobe is abandoned is because the City wanted it that way. If you knew the history, you might ask why the City has hung onto a large piece of property way the heck out in Lopez Canyon. If you knew the history, you’d know that years ago the SLO City Employees Association hired a forensic accountant who uncovered the fact that the City owns properties all over the place. Recently I spent

I apologize if I misstated what you said. I just don’t see the run down adobe as having actual value, cultural, historic, or economically beneficial. If there wasn’t a project in the works that plot should have been redeveloped years ago.

I really believe that this city should grow. It didn’t become a great place by staying frozen in time. We have the bones of an older city and upon that we can build a stronger town that is livable for our grandchildren. We’re not going to become another Santa Maria or Los Angeles – failed designs. We can look to our past, look internationally, and innovate to create a really unique, livable, and destination city.

You don’t need to apologize to me, this is a rough-and-tumble comment space. I happen to think that the adobe was deliberately allowed to deteriorate through lack of maintenance. One idea might have been to incorporate it into the Historical Museum. It had a lot of really nice old touches. Still does, as of yesterday they haven’t knocked it down yet. I agree that the City needs growth, but I disagree on this project. Frankly, I think it would have been better to let HASLO have it and develop some low income housing. Only the Anderson is left as a place for those who can’t afford much to live. The Park isn’t a flop hotel anymore, and the Granada got the complete Cabernet douche nozzle treatment. Those used to be actual places for the lower income stratus people to live. Is Santa Maria a failed design? That’s a subjective judgment, isn’t it? Santa Maria is where all the service workers who come into SLO every day to mow lawns, clean houses and change diapers live. I grew up in SLO but live in South County now, and I do a lot of my shopping and business in Santa Maria. Frankly, from my perspective Santa Barbara and Santa Monica are failed designs, because the people who actually make the country go have no shot at living there. That trend is statewide, and it didn’t need to be this way. California used to welcome industry. Both Northern and Southern California used to have much more heavy industry, and the BRAC base closures of the 1990s, in which CA got slammed, took away thousands of direct and ancillary jobs for lower and middle class people. We cannot endure long with a tiny fraction of the populace being fabulously wealthy (as long as it was legal and not tied to conscript labor in the PRC, God bless you but…) and everyone else frantically trying merely to exist. I spent a lot of time in the Balkans, and my first interpreter used the term “a poor country for rich people”. I don’t want that here. I don’t like the transformation of SLO into a boutique town. That’s my opinion. That’s the character change that I object to.

You make a lot of great points and I think we almost certainly agree on more than we disagree. I very much agree that it’s far too hard to to live in SLO with a low-income. You’re spot on that California is seriously endangered of becoming a place for only the fabulously wealthy; we see it in San Francisco, a city of millionaires where the janitors have to commute 2 hours into their job. Where I see a solution is in building up. More housing not just in the downtown but everywhere you can fit it (the Japanese have great free market rules on inclusive housing – if own it and want it, it’s your right to build it). While I would love to see deed restricted affordable housing, it’s also something that will crush construction with too heavy a regulatory hand. I accept that luxury apartments will come along with more affordable entry level townhomes. I don’t want to live in a far off cookie cutter suburb where I have to drive an hour to work and 20 minutes to the grocery, I want to live in the city I work and can walk to a park or bike to farmers market – that’s the essence of SLO. The character of this town will change, but I really do believe for the better, and ultimately SLO will always be SLO, more bikes, wider sidewalks and 3 story buildings won’t make this not home.

nearly 20 minutes moving down Higuera from Osos to Morro, because a delivery truck was blocking the lane near Woodstock’s. That is not a consumer-friendly downtown experience. But it’s OK. These are opinion pieces and we get to express our reactions. Each reaction is necessarily subjective. You have your opinion, I have mine, and the readers can analyze and evalu

Wow! I actually agree with you! Indeed you are correct, as SLO moved politically left, it lost it’s decency!

Good read. Reminded me of the old slo mentality. Smart and articulate. Down to earth. Conscious of our history and future. Not too political.

So this project includes the demolition of a historic adobe home on lower Monterey Street. How in the hell did this get past CEQA? Part of the CEQA process is to check the historical and cultural significance of buildings to be remodeled or destroyed.

It’s not the “right kind” of adobe for the city council to care. See, they used a natural asphalt as the binder, instead of leaves and twigs and weeds like REAL and HISTORICAL and ANCIENT adobe bricks full of Spanish DNA.

This makes it “not like the others”, and not worthy of saving, regardless of it’s actual historical worth.

It would be like, bulldozing the Mission, because some roof tiles are machine made, and not formed over the virgin thighs of teenage Chumash girls.