Downtown San Luis Obispo will soon see changes following the City Council decision to approve a beautification plan for a two-block area of Higuera Street between Morro and Garden streets.
After a series of public comments both for and against the project — as well as a pair of failed motions by council members Andrew Carter and Kathy Smith to cancel and downsize the plan — the San Luis City Council passed the $761,628 project 3-2 in a November meeting. Carter and Smith voted against the project.
The project calls for replacing current sidewalks with new “mission-style” ones, replacing trees and their surrounding infrastructure, installing new lighting, upgrading trash cans and bringing sign posts up to new standards required by law and painting traffic lights and poles.
Janice Bowen, manager at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory on Higuera Street, said he is not concerned about how the construction will impact business. Though the project will involve tearing up sidewalks, Bowen said he was told temporary sidewalks would be provided.
“If people want their chocolate-dipped strawberries, they’re going to come get them — construction or not,” he said.
Though Bowen said he does not believe the renovations will have a significant impact on creating a new atmosphere for downtown San Luis Obispo, he does think the project will improve safety along Higuera Street.
“Our sidewalks are really bad,” he said. “The trees are all uprooting the sidewalks, and it’s just a big mess.”
The original idea for the project came in 2009, after San Luis Obispo residents came to City Council with a PowerPoint of infrastructure breakdown through the downtown area. City Council Member John Ashbaugh said the Council was avoiding the issue, until now.
“(Renovation has) been an elusive goal that the Council has continually punted,” Ashbaugh said.
This “punting” might be due to the $4.4 million deficit the city finds itself in. Smith said though the project will eventually have a positive impact downtown, its timing forced her to vote against it.
“You don’t remodel your house when you’re trying to find money to eat,” she said. “We should be cautiously spending our dollars now.”
Still, Ashbaugh said students who take advantage of the city’s nightlife will find welcoming change with the renovations.
“When people see the results, they’ll look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this before?'” he said.
The accepted bid for the project from John Madonna Construction came in at $160,343 more than a city estimate. The previous estimate came from city engineers, which is routine for proposed city projects. According to a city report, nearly 80 percent of projects are under the engineer’s estimate. This downtown project is approximately 13 percent more than the original estimate.
Carter said the higher cost does not fit with the idea City Council had when they began the planning phase early last year.
Originally, Carter said the renovations were meant to be a demonstration of what would later be done to between 20 and 30 blocks downtown. The project was originally slated to cover a three-block area of Higuera Street, but costs forced council to downsize the project to only two blocks. The project will cost more than $380,000 per block.
At this cost, Carter said it would not be possible to roll out the project to all of downtown San Luis Obispo.
“I don’t see how in any way, shape or form we can spend $400,00 per block on another 20 or 30 blocks,” he said.
Instead, Carter said the city should prioritize what needs to be fixed in the downtown area. He said he wants to spend more on pedestrian lighting, as well as repairing “trip and fall” areas.
“We need to focus on what needs to be done versus what would be nice to do,” he said. “That money could be better used in other areas of downtown.”
Ashbaugh, however, said he sees the price as fitting for the amount of work that will be done. He said it is comparable to similar projects being done in the city.
“It’s not an unreasonable cost for the geography we’re covering here,” he said.
A recommendation by deputy director of public works Barbara Lynch advised the City Council to take away approximately $150,000 from capital improvement projects, including sidewalk accessibility, sign maintenance and street reconstruction, to help fund the downtown beautification. These cuts, Carter said, came from items that were already completed or were projected to be under budget. The cuts, along with a shift of money from design to construction for the project, would fill the $160,343 shortage in budget. This was approved by the council.
As part of the effort to reduce costs on the project, City Council rejected a proposed $25,000 cost to hire an outside contractor to consult local businesses on the project.
By doing the construction work at night, per request of businesses, the cost of the construction is also higher than if it were done during the day. Carter said adding the cost of doing construction at night is too accommodating to the businesses.
“The downtown businesses want this project but don’t want any disruption from the construction,” Carter said. “That’s kind of like saying, ‘I want my cake, and I want to eat it too.’”
Construction on the area began Tuesday, and the project is slated to be completed by early April.