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Should SLO bring back free hour of parking at downtown structures?

San Luis Obispo could bring back its universal free first hour of parking in its downtown structures after residents and businesses spoke out against recent changes.

That would mean ditching with the free-hour pilot program for locals, which has proven confusing and frustrating for many.

The San Luis Obispo City Council is set to discuss its parking policies at a meeting Tuesday night, including talking about the potential to bring back the free hour of parking at downtown structures.

“The city recognizes that new parking rates and other downtown parking changes have been challenging for some community members,” Public Works Director Matt Horn told The Tribune in a recent interview. “We all want to support a thriving, vibrant downtown, and we also need to cover the cost in managing and providing public parking services downtown.”

The City Council voted to stop providing the free hour as policy in 2022, but elected to subsidize that hour of parking for a year, Horn said. In July, that subsidy ended.

At the same time, downtown parking rates also nearly doubled, going from $1.50 per hour in the structures to $3, and jumping from $2.50 per hour to $4 on the streets.

Community members protested the changes, saying they were preventing people from visiting the downtown. Soon after a coalition of more than 80 local business owners united to ask the City Council to revert some of its changes, the city announced it planned to take another look at its policies.

Beside reinstating the free hour, the City Council could also authorize a parking rate study that would examine if it could reduce its rates in light of unexpected cost savings for the new Cultural Arts District Structure now under construction at the corner of Palm and Nipomo streets.

That’s in part due to to lower-than-expected construction costs, a lower interest rate and a change in the city’s debt financing model that allows a different kind of debt-to-revenue ratio and asset management levels, Horn said.

This could potentially leave some wiggle room where the city could feasibly adjust its parking rates and policies to ease some of the difficulties customers and business owners are seeing downtown.

“The city will consider near- and long-term solutions to provide relief for new rates and ensure that parking downtown remains accessible and affordable,” Horn said.

If the City Council chooses to bring back the free hour, it would do away with the pilot locals permit program that allows local residents to register for a free hour in the 842 Palm St. garage.

That program has been difficult to implement, according to Horn, because the registration process was tricky for some residents to figure out, and the technology used in the gateless structure wasn’t made for that sort of use.

“It’s been challenging for everyone,” Horn said.

How to comment on SLO parking

The San Luis Obispo City Council will discuss its parking program at its regular meeting Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

The meeting takes place in Council Chambers at 990 Palm St. and can be joined virtually or by phone. For more information on how to view or listen to the meeting, visit the city’s website at slocity.org/government/mayor-and-city-council/agendas-and-minutes.

To comment on the city’s parking policies or on the proposed changes ahead of the meeting, residents can email the City Council at emailcouncil@slocity.org.