Cal Poly to move forward with Grand Avenue housing project

Controversial site: Residential neighbors say dorms would create extra noise, trash and traffic

nwilson@thetribunenews.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Cal Poly will move forward with an approximately 1,475-bed freshmen housing project at the Grand Avenue entrance of the campus, with plans to open it in fall 2018.

The decision, announced Wednesday by university President Jeffrey Armstrong, envisions seven four- to five-story towers oriented around a central greenspace, as well as a parking structure and about 20,000 feet of space on three sides of the parking structure that could be used as offices, a community lounge, a coffee shop or a welcoming center.

The university considered two new alternative sites after nearby residents complained of potential impacts in two public forums in recent months. Armstrong said in an interview Wednesday he even considered scratching the project.

But he concluded that the Grand Avenue spot is the best site to house first-year students because of its proximity to dining facilities and other services. And the project would help keep students on campus, which has proved beneficial to their
academic performance.

Armstrong said the university intends to beef up security in the area to address concerns by residents that rowdy students will cause trouble in their neighborhood.

“There are two major reasons that I opted to stay with the site,” Armstrong said. “We want to have our first-year students in one location. There’s no other location that provides first-year housing where we need it and at the number (of residents) we need. The second major reason is there are 1,400 fewer students living in the neighborhood. So, the very thing the neighbors are concerned about, we are, too.”

The university is seeking approval for the dorm for first-year students from the California State University Board of Trustees early this year with intentions to break ground in 2015.

The Grand Avenue housing site currently is a parking lot of 1,324 spaces, but only about 850 spots are taken up on average, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said.

The proposed project would include a parking structure of at least 366 spaces with the option of up to 500 spaces if the contractor can make it work, Lazier added.

The university anticipates absorbing lost parking elsewhere on campus, including in the parking structures at Poly Canyon Village that aren’t used to capacity.

One alternative site considered was an 8.6-acre area along Via Carta between the sports complex and Poly Canyon Village — which Cal Poly nixed because it houses existing academic programs that would have needed to be moved.

The other alternative site, along California Boulevard east of the railroad tracks, south of Highland Drive and just north of Spanos Stadium, would have required safety improvements to address the hazards from being near railroad tracks.

These two sites, recently considered along with more than six others in earlier planning stages, would carry higher costs than the estimated $200 million in bonds the university intends to finance through student rent payments for the Grand Avenue location.

The university didn’t consider adding on to Poly Canyon Village because it’s farther away from campus services and it’s intended for upperclassmen.

Frederick Andersen, a neighbor who resides on Slack Street, said he was “shocked” by Wednesday’s announcement from the university.

“I thought that they were reconsidering,” Andersen said. “We’re already dealing with problems as it is, and somehow they expect us to just swallow it.”

Andersen, who’s retired, has joined a group of neighbors who have complained that a large number of students living across the street would impact their community with noise, trash, traffic and increased partying in the nearby off-campus homes occupied by other students.

He also said they’re considering hiring an attorney to look into the issue.

“It’s borderline tenable to live here now,” Andersen said. “We’re thinking of moving.”

Armstrong emphasized Wednesday that Cal Poly had no obligation to complete an environmental impact report, but the university followed through anyway.

Armstrong said he has met with leaders from the neighborhood group to discuss how Cal Poly is working toward a cultural change with programs that will help maintain a good relationship with the community.

Of late, Cal Poly has had ongoing negotiations with leaders in the Greek community regarding party registration.

The university also plans to hire two new patrol officers to help monitor the area of the campus where the new housing would be built. Their first priority would be policing the campus.

“But with more staffing, (the University Police Department) can devote more time to patrolling in the neighborhoods and working directly with (the San Luis Obispo Police Department),” Lazier said.

The Cal Poly Corporation also recently closed escrow on four homes on Slack Street that were falling into disrepair and primarily used as rentals for students for many years, though no broader plan by the university exists to buy additional properties in the area.

The corporation paid $1.9 million for the land and structures, according to a statement released Wednesday. The land is zoned for single-family residents, and the university is still developing plans for the properties but doesn’t intend to use the homes for student housing.

Moving forward, Cal Poly will begin the process of updating its campus master plan, Armstrong said, which will include examining what the campus will look like in terms of infrastructure, enrollment, housing and educational facilities.

Armstrong previously has said that Cal Poly projects it will grow from about 20,000 students now to 25,000 by 2022. But on Wednesday he said that growth number isn’t a certainty and will depend on a variety of factors, including donations.

“If we grow to 22,500 or 21,000 and we’re comfortable with our rationale and why we’ve done that, I think that defines success,” Armstrong said.

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