Look beyond dorm project and improve nearby neighborhoods

March 28, 2014 

On March 25, the SLO City Council provided an evening forum for neighbors concerned about the proposed 1,475-bed freshman dormitory complex proposed for the parking lot just inside the main entrance to Cal Poly at Grand Avenue and Slack Street.

For the past 20 years, the city has called on Cal Poly to provide more campus housing to relieve pressure from student rentals on our neighborhoods. Cal Poly has responded with Poly Canyon Village and other campus housing. The proposed “Student Housing South” dorms would certainly advance that mutual goal.

After hearing eloquent testimony by neighbors strongly opposed to this project, however, it’s clear there are many flaws in the project and in its draft Environmental Impact Report. The consensus among the neighbors is that Cal Poly has selected the wrong site, designed it at an excessive scale, inadequately analyzed its environmental impacts and failed to engage the neighbors in the planning process.

The comment period for the university’s recirculated Draft EIR expires on Monday. The city will certainly issue a strong letter calling for an improved project.

Cal Poly has the opportunity through the final EIR to choose one of the “environmentally superior” alternatives, including the H12/H16 parking lots at Via Carta and Perimeter Drive in the interior of the campus. The neighbors — and this council member — would prefer that the next oncampus housing project be developed at these alternative sites. The proposed project is simply too large and too close to existing single-family neighborhoods.

If, however, the university persists with the project on this site, all reasonable steps must be taken to mitigate significant adverse impacts on the city and its neighborhoods. The final EIR must do a credible job analyzing and mitigating traffic impacts, particularly at Grand and Slack. Improved buffers, reduced heights on the south end and traffic demand management measures would alleviate some of the legitimate concerns of neighbors.

As we negotiate the fate of this project, there is one point on which all parties should agree: The proliferation of student rentals throughout the neighborhoods close to Cal Poly are an ongoing problem that should be addressed directly.

Cal Poly and the city need to jointly address the severe cumulative impacts of enrollment growth on the deterioration of singlefamily, owner-occupied neighborhoods near the university. More campus housing is only one part of the package: We should develop a comprehensive plan to stabilize our remaining owner-occupied neighborhoods wherever it is still possible to do so.

What’s needed is a proactive, voluntary program that could work in this manner:

Using assets from the Cal Poly Foundation or other sources, establish a Neighborhood Stabilization Revolving Fund to purchase single-family homes from willing sellers within targeted neighborhoods like Alta Vista and Monterey Heights.

Each time a single-family home comes onto the market within the target neighborhoods, the revolving fund would attempt to acquire the home, and then sell only to owner-occupants with a restrictive covenant that prevents it from being used as a rental.

Proceeds from the sale of each home would replenish the revolving fund.

This program could also encourage owners of single-family homes in these neighborhoods to place a restrictive covenant on their property voluntarily, committing them to sell only to an owner-occupant or to the Neighborhood Stabilization Revolving Fund.

The revolving fund could be used to buy and hold any home that is suitable for resale to owner-occupants. Priority should go to purchasing homes in neighborhoods where nearby owners have already placed a covenant on their home.

When the fund purchases a home, the price would be based upon an appraisal consistent with its use as an owner-occupied home. The covenants would commit buyers to occupying the home, permitting rentals only for limited periods (e.g., a one-year faculty sabbatical). After this time, the owner must return and occupy the home. The covenants would appear in each title report and run with the land.

Where would the money come from? Cal Poly recently purchased four homes on Grand Avenue that could be sold to provide seed funding for this program — with restrictive covenants, if appropriate.

We could establish this Neighborhood Stabilization Revolving Fund on an experimental basis, with regular oversight and a “sunset” period of 10 years. Properly designed, the program would be self-sustaining, with periodic adjustments as needed to rebuild owner-occupancy rates in the single-family zones close to Cal Poly.

Many details would need to be worked out, but the city and Cal Poly already have a strong partnership. All it takes is a mutual commitment to create stronger, healthier neighborhoods that can resist the disruptive trend toward investor-owned, renter-occupied houses now plaguing our community.

Councilman John Ashbaughwelcomes comments at jashbaugh@slocity.org or 550-7713.

WEIGH IN ON REPORT

Comments on the draft EIR should be directed to Cal Poly consultant Nicole Carter at ncarter@swca.com.

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