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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Like many other locals, I prefer not to go downtown for shopping. However, if I do find myself in the downtown area, it’s usually to enjoy a movie. In such cases, I typically head straight to a parking structure to take advantage of slightly lower hourly rates. Despite the discount, there is still an additional cost of $3 to $5 for parking, which needs to be considered when planning an outing. Unfortunately, we don’t have any theaters in SLO that offer free parking.

I believe the city is utilizing an Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system to monitor street parking spaces. To address this issue and provide a solution, it would be beneficial to establish a parking permit portal on the city’s website. This portal would allow locals to register their license plate numbers and obtain free parking privileges. This initiative would greatly benefit city and county workers who currently have to park several blocks away from their workplace and constantly worry about parking meters throughout the day. By implementing different sectors within the parking permit system, designated areas can be reserved for specific individuals, ensuring that prime tourist parking areas remain available for visitors.

I have lived in SLO County all my life. I go to downtown SLO very infrequently, yet I can remember at least two occasions in the last four years when very vocal protesters were accosting people who were dining outdoors. As for the homeless, post-pandemic I have recently shopped in Carmel, Gilroy, Pacific Grove, Solvang, Los Gatos, and Ventura having not experienced the level of aggressive panhandling that happens in downtown SLO. So no, it’s not “normal” in all of California. Sure, a lot of people really love SLO. Most of them moved here from larger cities with larger problems, and rather than solve those problems they fled here and brought their big city attitudes with them. But SLO used to be something more special than simply being “better than L.A.” No, it’s not apocalyptic, but I still chose to avoid SLO because I have no use for what little exists downtown anymore. Nor do I want to deal with the discourteous, rude, and boorish attitudes of all the L.A. and S.F. refugees who consider it paradise.

I’ve avoided downtown for lithe last several years. I don’t care to be panhandled, accosted or yelled at by the “unhoused”. Or have activists scream at me with a bull horn while I eating. Or have someone sit at my table and demand my food.

Until this kind of social aberration is removed, this parking structure is a waste of money. No one wants to visit such a place and thus has no need for parking. Too bad the city has been allowed to degrade so severely.

I visit downtown frequently and have never been accosted, had my food demanded. Sure a few times a year someone asks for change, but that’s (unfortunately) normal in California and it’s never been rude. I think I remember some protesters one time, rolled my eyes and they were gone after a minute. Just ignore them, it’s a free country. So maybe in the last few years things are a lot better than you recall, certainly seems fine to me!

I live in Slo and get panhandled perhaps once a month, never accosted or yelled at.

“yelled at by the “unhoused”. Or have activists scream at me” Really? This happens to you? When?

“Until this kind of social aberration is removed,” Ahh, you want “them” removed.

I guess when you move here from the larger cities this must look like paradise to some. But I guess when you flee the problems in other places instead of solving them, you are kinda required to be an apologist when those same problems start appearing here. That, or deny them until they get so bad that you flee once again and move to the next designated “paradise.” I suppose if I moved here and paid $700k+ for a home, I too would be clicking my heels together and repeating “there’s no place like SLO” for as long as I could make myself believe it.

I guess when you flee the problems in other places instead of solving them, you are kinda required to be an apologist”


I guess, I guess I suppose”

You guessed wrong.

The city is doing more and more to push people to online shopping and to shop close to home in south and north county and Santa Maria.

People talk about downtown SLO in such apocalyptic, dystopian terms. At best it’s exaggeration because this is the internet, everything needs to be cranked up to 11. At worst I feel like there are people who don’t ever visit, don’t know what they’re talking about, and are just making things up because they … don’t like liberals?

Is downtown SLO perfect? No! I miss some old establishments, there are a few properties I worry will be hard to fill with new businesses unless the City is willing to subdivide lots. There are too many homeless, way less than the big cities, but more than rural places and smaller cities (obviously?). We need more outdoor dining. But come on folks! A new modern parking structure, new theater, new buildings on Monterrey and someday Marsh, street improvements, lots of excellent cafes, restaurants, bars, shops, and destinations. Cheaper than downtown Paso and with more than any place in the county. Farmers market has never been bigger. A few extra dollars for parking will probably get me to bike a bit more, and maybe stay a little shorter, or later after the gates lift. But it’s not a reason to start living in my fallout shelter.

I avoid Downtown SLO like the plague. I’d avoid the entire city if I could. The residents of SLO are getting exactly what they voted for.

I feel the same way about Templeton, any community that tolerates Nazis and racist’s on the 101 overpass does not deserve any tourists. The residents are getting exactly what they voted for.

SLO makes me feel better and better all the time about my decision to steer clear.

I would have rather that the city simply increased sales tax by a fraction of a percent. Worrying about whether or not your parking meter is going to expire can ruin what my otherwise be a relaxing, enjoyable shopping experience.

These days downtown SLO has all the appeal of a dead mall. I don’t recall ever paying for parking at a dead mall, nor have I ever seen a dead mall build a new parking garage hoping it will “draw” more people. Oh, and making locals “register” to get free parking? Going to downtown SLO for anything is already a dreaded hassle, now add an extra hoop to jump through if you want an hour of free parking (but only in the garage that’s farthest away from anything). You want free parking? Show us your papers.