The difficult decision to increase SLO parking rates

May 25, 2023

Councilwoman Andy Pease

Opinion by SLO City Councilwoman Andy Pease

You’re probably going to be mad about this. Or maybe, like me, you’ll go through stages of disbelief, frustration then acceptance: Parking rates in San Luis Obispo are going up. It was one of the most difficult votes I’ve had to make, but I believe it was necessary, and we’re working to reduce impacts to our residents and local businesses.

So, why are we increasing parking rates? It’s a bit of a tangled web that started many years ago with the reasonable intent to support growing businesses downtown who wanted to build on surface parking lots. Community leaders decided that the additional parking needs would be met in structures along the perimeter of downtown, so we built the ones on Marsh and Palm and planned for the final structure along Nipomo. New development paid lieu fees in anticipation of the structure; the rest of the cost would be covered by parking fees, for when the additional parking would be needed.

Fast forward to 2018. Downtown is busy and parking occupancy rates are going up. SLO Rep theater is growing and needs a new home, so it was a natural fit that the new Palm-Nipomo parking structure would be a great co-project with SLO Rep and the burgeoning Cultural Arts District. The structure would be $25 million, but the parking fund had some savings and could finance the rest.

Then COVID hit, and we made parking free downtown for more than a year, which diminished parking funds without bringing in revenue. Concurrently, there have been astronomical increases in construction costs, and the cost estimate ballooned to $52 million.

Now we’re in a pickle. We don’t have that kind of savings, so to get a loan, we need to demonstrate to lending agencies adequate revenue, thus triggering an increase in hourly meter rates from $2.50/hour to $4.00/hour, and the parking structure to $3.00/hour, starting July 1 of this year.

We looked at alternatives, and none looked great. Don’t build the structure? Then we would have parking shortages for the foreseeable future, possibly jeopardizing the new SLO Rep theater. Although perhaps someday a regional theater with no parking could work here, that’s not in the immediate future.

The structure enables not only the theater, but expanded access to the SLO Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, the History Center, Mission Plaza, retail shops and restaurants, as well as several commercial projects in that area of town that are on hold pending parking.

Delay construction? Delays further add costs and risk the SLO Rep project. Use General Funds to supplement construction? Parking is an “enterprise fund”, set up to cover its own expenses, and we need General Funds for maintaining roads, running programs and public safety.

Faced with these realities, I and the council majority voted to build the parking structure and increase parking rates to cover the cost, because we believe this is an essential investment in our downtown and in our community.

Since that decision, we have been working closely with our community partners to address three primary concerns: Keep locals coming downtown; support employee parking needs; and provide clear communication. Over the next few months, you’ll hear more about all of these.

To start, we know that having the first hour free in the structures is well used by locals but is a considerable loss of revenue from the many visitors downtown. To balance these needs, we are rolling out the Park Local program – any resident in San Luis Obispo County will be able park in the main Palm Street Garage and retain the first hour free. There will be a simple registration process, so stay tuned for details and links.

We’ll also have technology upgrades, more ways and locations to pay, improved signage, opportunity for merchant validation, employee discount programs, and more. And, of course, we’ll continue to invest in safe and enjoyable bike lanes, sidewalks and buses for those traveling without a personal vehicle. We want everyone to have options for coming downtown.

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Pure BS. Was in Palm Desert last weekend – you know another tourist centric area. Parked at a parking garage – had a nice lunch and visited several shops. Cost to park? ZERO! No worries about meter running out and getting a large ticket. Encouraging people to spend time downtown – what a concept!

So local taxpayers paid for the parking instead of you? No such thing as free parking. Interesting concept indeed.

Good point – better bring it up at the next Solvang meeting (also “free” parking) – both places have a thriving downtown business community.

SLO can do what they want but businesses seem to be declining and there are many very good restaurants throughout the county.

Palm Springs and Solvang, and most heavy tourist traps, have a tourist tax on all goods and services. “Free” isn’t what that means.

No doubt you are correct but if as the op ed stated they wanted to help the residents wouldn’t free parking and a slightly higher services tax be preferable? I can’t say how much of an increase it would take but there would be almost no reason for parking enforcement (savings), locals would benefit and anything to stimulate business downtown would result in more revenue.

As stated elsewhere, I can’t see how a significant number of workers will look at this increased cost as a reason to go work elsewhere – Morris Bay , AG etc.

My apologies to the fine citizens of Morro Bay and Morris Bay for that matter, wherever that is

I would counter that an increased consumption tax as an alternative funding source has some disadvantages to user fees on parking. Using general taxes to fund parking would be a boon to drivers at the expense of people who bike or take public transit, both unfair and a policy which pushs the cost more directly onto locals as opposed to tourists. Also we still need parking enforcement, making all parking free wouldnt negate the need to ticket people parked illegally, again, I think it’s fair that cars users pay for their infrastructure and rule enforcement. Lastly paid parking creates more parking space turnover – as convenient as it is, it’s unproductive economically for someone to stay 5 hours in their spot, encouraging cars to only stay as long as they need. Obviously this sucks as a consumer, but makes sense as a matter of economic and pro-business policy. This is the main reason Paso started charging for parking.

The big thing is still this: a general consumption tax would be a transfer of money from all SLO residents, those who drive but also walk, bike, or use transit, towards people who drive cars downtown – residents would pay more, tourists would pay less, benefit more.

Oh, the poor bikers. Don’t have to have biking license, no bike license, no gas tax, no nada. Aren’t they freeloaders hogging the road? You think cars hog too much, at least they’re paying for what bikers get.

Thank you Councilwoman for writing this piece and wadding into hostile territory, it is certain the negativity will outweigh the support. Thank you CCN for publishing this piece – I sometimes feel the intellectual diversity is lacking in this site.

It’s a tough decision, but ultimately I agree with the Council’s direction. The $1.50 per hour has always been a ludicrously low price and I think everyone knew at some point it would have to go up. The rising construction prices have been unforgiving to local development, but I’m glad the decision to push through is being made, stagnation is not a solution. I’m excited by the Park-Local program that will help residents with less resources than tourists, I’m curious how it will work (perhaps a local library card collaboration?). There will be a lot of nasty comments from people who both like being rude, but also who are scared of change (I’m scared too, who isn’t anxious about change!) Remember that you have support from a lot of long time SLO residents who value growing up, rather than regressing to a fictional memory of the past.

I assume you mean “wading” and not “wadding”. I would agree that wadding (padding, stuffing, etc.) is a better description of this attempt to justify a poor decision.  

Ah, spelling mistake! My entire argument, now crumbled to pieces. I see the joke you’re trying to make, but it doesn’t really work in the context of my sentence. Appreciate the effort!

“Fictional memory of the past”? I’ve lived in SLO County since 1966. Used to buy my clothes at Benos and eat at Scrubby & Lloyds. Downtown was vibrant and the occupancy of stores was 100%. Such a contrast to what it’s become.

I live in Arroyo Grande and used to go to Slo all the time. Due to the parking meters I haven’t spent a dime there in a LONGGGGG time. Go ahead and raise the rates, maters not to me.

Translation: “We want projects we can’t afford, so we’ll bump fees on the populace to pay for what WE want”. Wants, not needs, always seem to trump fiscal responsibility in California…

It seems like raising revenue to meet a increase in capital expenditures is the fiscally responsible thing to do, actually.

Also “we” is the duely elected representatives of the populace, right? The new parking structure has been debated for years and the voters have consistently, and overwhelming supported the Council’s direction.

The only thing maybe irresponsible was how long it took, partially to blame are feet draggers in this comment section, but, admittedly a once in a lifetime pandemic was the really sucker punch.

Charging me to park is among the list of reasons I don’t shop in SLO.

Who should pay for your parking?

I had to laugh at keeping locals coming downtown and support employee parking needs.

What locals that were coming into town will stop.

I for one could always find a place to park,might have to walk a block or two but I found a place and it wasn’t at the other end of town on Nipomo street.

As far as employee parking needs most of them are paid minimum wage,so besides try to pay rent,food and other bills they have to pay more to park to go to work?

Because of bad money managing from past and current years you decide that is for the best for everyone to raise the parking rates to support the the money spending tourists that won’t blink an eye at $3.00-$4.00 an hour to park,shop and eat.

Here is a suggestion why don’t you start a Go Fund me page.

What’s so important about the SLO Rep theater, and why should the public financially support it? If it’s so great, let it fend for itself.

The rising parking rate is similar to government thinking with taxes. Lacking the understanding of how markets work, they just assume that public behavior won’t change. In other words, people will continue to pay whatever the rate is.

As far as the cost of the building, get rid of “prevailing wage” and use the lowest bidders, like most business function.

What a screwed up city.

Absolutely right on Sloable.

Let the people who attend SLO Rep theater pay their own way. They will probably end up getting free parking anyway due to lack of use of this structure at the time of their performances. So, the public pays for this structure and subsidies parking for specific selected businesses.

Undoubtedly there will be fewer people that are willing to pay these ridiculous parking fees. The result is fewer people shopping downtown. Although unlikely, it is even possible the city would make less money with the higher rates. Government almost always makes decisions assuming static markets, and usually ends up facing unintended consequences.

“Prevailing wage” is something that originated with unions. It forces contractors to pay much higher rates for labor on public works projects. It involves a lot of record keeping and reporting by contractors in addition to the much higher wages paid to workers. I believe it to result in public works projects costing 150% of what the same project would cost in the private sector. (This is from my experience years ago. It is likely higher now.)

Your conclusion is also entirely correct. I wonder what Ken Swartz would say about the mess that has been made of the city he worked so hard on years ago.

Whoops, that was the supervisors… STILL!!! lol

The audacity to write this article after voting to increase their own salaries is appalling and gross.

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