SLO is reducing exorbitant parking rates. Will it be enough to help downtown? | Opinion

Well, that’s a relief.

A contrite San Luis Obispo City Council voted Tuesday to reduce onerous parking rates in the downtown following a near-rebellion by locals, especially business owners who saw their sales drop precipitously.

With that one vote, the city hopefully settled what may have been the biggest controversy since a mandatory rental inspection ordinance was passed and later rejected.

The City Council deserves credit for listening to constituents and rolling back rates that were nearly doubled last year to help fund the new parking structure under construction on the corner of Palm and Nipomo streets.

It’s especially gratifying that at a time when so many costs are rising — gas, groceries, utilities — the city found a way to substantially reduce parking fees.

It also agreed to do away with the hated “gateless” system installed at the main Palm Street parking structure. It requires drivers to either pay on an app or at a pay station located inside the structure — a confusing process that should be permanently ditched.

Business owners in downtown SLO have openly opposed the parking rates that practically doubled last year. They’ll get some relief in July, when lower rates go into effect.
Business owners in downtown SLO have openly opposed the parking rates that practically doubled last year. They’ll get some relief in July, when lower rates go into effect.

No more free hour

It wasn’t all good news.

To offset the lower rates, the council also decided to end the “first hour free” perk that’s been so popular with locals. Free Sunday parking is also going away.

That’s disappointing, but overall, the new parking fee schedule makes sense.

The hourly fee for street parking in the city core will drop from $4 to $2.75.

The parking structure rate will be $2 per hour, rather than $3, with a new daily maximum of $8 instead of $12. And monthly passes for the parking structures will be $45, down from $85. The new rates take effect in July.

The lower rates will benefit sightseers, shoppers and diners, as well as those downtown employees who have been shelling out big bucks for the privilege of going to work.

‘This must be a slap in the face to downtown businesses’

Granted, it would have been far better if the city had settled on a more modest rate increase in the first place.

It should have recognized that a near doubling of parking rates would be disastrous for the downtown economy, especially after the huge hit sustained by the COVID pandemic.

Instead, the city pressed forward — and wound up alienating just about everybody, including one visitor from faraway Alaska.

“Upon visiting San Luis Obispo, we wanted to take in the downtown and its shopping. What a shock to discover that parking was $4.00 an hour. ... This must be a slap in the face to downtown businesses trying to survive and continue the charm of the city,” Debbie Jaso wrote in a letter to The Tribune.

She was exactly right.

Businesses saw their sales drop, and many owners blamed it primarily on the steep parking rates that went into effect nearly a year ago.

“In just 10 months, the city has done extensive damage,” Hemp Shak owner Katy Hemler told the City Council on Tuesday.

A representative of Downtown Centre Cinemas said revenues “dropped significantly” in the past year and warned that if rates weren’t reduced, the theater would be forced to close.

That would be another huge hit for a downtown that has already lost several popular businesses.

Don’t expect business to rebound overnight

Cheaper parking is a good first step, but it may not be enough to win back the goodwill of those Central Coast residents who have been avoiding downtown for any number of reasons: traffic, street closures, the loss of some big retail stores like Ross and Beverly’s Fabrics and an overall perception that downtown is just too darned expensive.

Some of the downtown-averse have found other options.

Paso Robles — where the City Council recently voted to bring back free parking — is one. Others include Madonna Plaza, the SLO Promenade, SLO Public Market, the Target and Home Depot shopping centers and the Pismo Beach Premium Outlets, all with plenty of free parking. On top of that, there is always Amazon.

Still, there’s no place quite like downtown San Luis Obispo for dining, shopping, museums, the Thursday night Farmers Market and other special events. To write it off would be a mistake.

But it shouldn’t cost $12 to spend a few hours downtown.

So thank you, city of SLO, for listening to the public’s concerns and making parking rates more affordable.