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Park 'n' pay? Pay 'n' park?

Here's a quick rundown on why the public has to pay for downtown SLO's $20 million parking complex

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They’re going to build a parking lot here?” Suzanne Wieler asked as she got out of her car.

She had maneuvered into her usual parking spot, not far from a city parking lot at Palm and Nipomo streets in San Luis Obispo.

“It’s always empty anyway,” she said to a reporter. “Why would they do that?”

She glanced over at the vacant parking lot, where a seagull aimlessly walked on what will one day be the site of a $20 million parking structure.

So why would a financially strapped city spend a fortune building a parking structure on the site of a seldom-used parking lot?

That’s a question a lot of people have been asking after the city council voted April 5 to raise parking rates and charge for Sunday parking for the first time. Not a penny from the increases will go the city’s general fund. It will all help pay for a new parking garage.

City staffers and political leaders say it’s necessary to plan and build for the future, even in the worst of times.

“If we hadn’t built [the existing parking structures] when we did, then downtown would be a ghost town,” said Councilmember Andrew Carter. “There wouldn’t be anywhere to park.”

Carter brings up an important point. Conventional street and lot parking are disappearing from downtown SLO—and that’s by design. It’s official city policy to make the downtown more pedestrian friendly by pushing parking to the edge of the business district. That also opens the door to selling city parking lots to developers. Such spaces will either be appropriated for another function or no longer available for public use.

Development in the downtown area usually happens on city-owned land, which is more readily available than private land. City leadership has historically been inclined to make sweetheart deals for developers.

The Copeland family paved over 132 spaces when they developed the Court Street project in downtown. They’re set to develop the Chinatown area, and the city accommodated them by selling a municipal parking lot for $3.7 million, far less than the property’s appraisal.

The city will lend developer Hamish Marshall $2.4 million at low interest rates when he gets around to developing his Garden Street Terraces. When this happens, the city will lose public parking spaces that will be paved over by these developments: 62 for Garden Street Terraces and 188 for Chinatown.

Critics point out it seems logical for developers to compensate the city and public for these parking spaces. And they do—to some extent.

Developers are supposed to pay around $17,000 for every space they eliminate. Even when they do, that sum doesn’t cover the total expense of the parking that will be taken away.

City policy has long dictated that developers pay around 40 percent of the cost of new parking, and city leaders have explained away the remaining 60 percent by arguing that if developers were required to pay the full cost of what they take away from the public, there wouldn’t be any development at all. The remaining 60 percent must be made up by the public.

All the money developers pay to the city goes into the parking enterprise fund, a supposedly sacrosanct and untouchable account that’s also supplied by parking fees and fines. There’s an estimated $4,461,700 in the account, and the city would like to have $5 million to put down on the Palm and Nipomo project, so they can borrow $15 million. That down payment is behind the driving need to raise parking rates. The City Council put off parking rate increases twice before. Now, the council has decided, it’s time for the public to pay up.

Of course, the $20 million estimate is likely a mirage. In 2009, the city estimated the construction costs of the structure would be around $12 million to $15 million. At the time, some city staff members privately conceded it would be around $20 million, but they said city leaders wanted to “keep those numbers under wraps.” Now $20 million is the official figure, but that’s based on the costs of the last parking structure, located at 919 Palm St., which is mostly used by city workers and was finished in 2006. If the cost of interest on the loan is thrown into the total, the cost of the Palm and Nipomo lot will likely soar.

 When informed of some of these facts, Wieler shrugged and said, “What can anybody do about it?”

She added: “It’s a silly place to build parking. It’s kind of far away from everything.”

However long the process takes, the seagulls will likely be uninterrupted by cars in the long run. Parking revenue for the existing lot has dropped and remained low in the last few years. ∆

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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