Atascadero resident Bruce Van Housen was walking through Sunken Gardens recently when he stumbled upon an architectural drawing posted outside of City Hall.
It was a mock-up of a $3 million, city-backed pedestrian bridge and plaza that’s coming to downtown Atascadero. It depicts a footbridge crossing Atascadero Creek—from the Galaxy Theaters on El Camino Real to Sunken Gardens—emptying into a landscaped plaza and parking lot adjacent to City Hall.
The project, called the Centennial Bridge and Plaza Project, was given the unanimous go-ahead by the Atascadero City Council in March, and construction is expected to break ground in spring 2017.
But Van Housen had no idea it existed until he saw the mock-up. He sees it as a wasteful use of $3 million, believing that there are several city projects that would have a greater public benefit.
Many other Atascadero residents who spoke with New Times shared his viewpoint. Helping out with restoring the decrepit Atascadero Printery, adding public restrooms to downtown, or helping with the Joy Playground Project were some citizens suggestions.
Not only does the Atascadero City Council believe in its investment, but it’s claiming that the $3 million paying for it, by law, can’t be spent elsewhere. And the reason for that is convoluted.
The bridge project was first discussed in 2005, as one of a number of projects prioritized by the now-defunct Atascadero Redevelopment Agency (RDA). RDAs were groups designed to help cities improve areas of blight by diverting a slice of property taxes to the RDA.
The RDA was, in part, how Atascadero renovated its famous City Hall. In 2010, the RDA sold bonds to contribute to City Hall construction, and at that time, stipulated a short list of other projects that any leftover bond proceeds could go toward. The Centennial Bridge and Plaza Project topped that list, and $3 million was what was leftover from the bond, according to the city.
In 2012, California dissolved all redevelopment agencies, and required that “[redevelopment] agencies use bond proceeds for the purposes for which the bonds were sold.”
The City Council believes that the project will make downtown a more attractive place for locals and help stimulate economic development in the area. It will also add 40 parking spaces. Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore indicated that a restaurant is planning to open on a vacant lot after the project is completed.
Some locals, like Daniel Jackson, who studied the bridge project closely, came around to supporting it.
“I was initially opposed to this project. I simply thought that they were going to build a bridge, with nothing more. I called it wasteful spending,” Jackson said. “However, upon reading the plan in its entirety and seeing the full scope of the project, I completely support it.”
Still, Van Housen and others believe the city could do a better job of engaging the community with projects of this scale.
“If they were really interested in community input, they would ask the people what they want,” Van Housen said, suggesting the city send a mailer out to households as a method of outreach. “Nobody I talked to in town even knew they were doing this.”