SLO council veterans call for communication makeover between Cal Poly, council

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneApril 19, 2014 

The San Luis Obispo City Council was hand delivered a pointed message from its predecessors this week: It’s time to get along.

Former Mayor Ken Schwartz presented a petition Tuesday, signed by 28 past mayors and council members, asking the council to improve its communications with Cal Poly regarding future student housing.

Last year, Cal Poly announced plans to increase its population by as many as 5,000 students by 2022.

“Given that any increase in the number of students at Cal Poly will have substantial impact on the housing and rental market within our city, as has been the situation in the past, we request that Cal Poly and the San Luis Obispo City Council work in partnership in consideration of the timing and prospective locations for all future student housing,” the statement reads.

Residents, concerned about the proposed location of a freshman dormitory complex at the entrance to Cal Poly on Grand Avenue, have repeatedly asked the council to convey their concerns to the university.

The statement comes after council members have publicly bickered about their stance on the proposed dorm. At a forum held by the city in March it became obvious that the council is split over the issue.

Councilman Dan Carpenter and Councilwoman Kathy Smith rallied behind residents’ requests to ask the university to move the dorm elsewhere. Councilman John Ashbaugh and Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson want to allow the process to be further vetted. Mayor Jan Marx has recused herself from the discussion because she lives near the project.

Council members’ response to the statement days after it was delivered varied, but all agreed that no harm could come of increased communication with the university.

“I welcomed the petition,” said Ashbaugh. “There is nothing in it that we couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing. I believe it was intended to try and set us back on course.”

Schwartz said the perceived breakdown in communication among the council members is leading to a larger concern about their ability to represent the community’s concerns to Cal Poly.

City Council candidate Gordon Mullin initiated the statement and collected the signatures.

“It is a big issue,” said Mullin. “The character of the city, which has changed from owner occupied to a predominately rental base, happened incrementally. It is now at everyone’s attention.”

The city and Cal Poly work closely together on a multitude of issues and administrators from both say that communication among them is a priority.

“We believe it is important for staff and council to be as educated and informed about issues pertaining to the university as possible, so that they are able to make balanced and effective decisions for the entire electorate of the city of San Luis Obispo,” said Justin Wellner, Cal Poly’s Director of Government and Community Relations. “Likewise, it is critical for Cal Poly administration to stay informed of issues pertaining to the city and how they can inform our decision-making on campus.

However, it is not an effortless relationship.

“It has always been tenuous,” said Schwartz of the relationship between the university and the city. “There are times where we recognize the value of each other rather perfectly and other times where the city might do something that the university doesn’t particularly like. And there are times like these when the university is pursuing a course that certain elements of the city are not in favor of.”

Shortly after the March public forum, Christianson, acting as vice mayor, submitted a letter to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong and the Cal State University Board of Trustees, including a copy of all written correspondence submitted to the council, draft minutes of the meeting and a DVD recording of the meeting.

“I urge you to review all of the materials submitted so that you have a full understanding of the sentiments of our community members to address the shortcomings of the environmental analysis,” wrote Christianson.

The city also filed a 14-page response to the draft environmental impact report for the dorm.

The recent petition was also forwarded to Cal Poly administrators.

“We sometimes agree, while at other times we agree to disagree, as was the case in our extensive comment letter submitted for the Student Housing South project,” said City Manager Katie Lichtig. “In all of these communications the city staff’s focus is on improving the quality of life and service to our community. This is achieved by having meaningful, honest and direct communications.”

But some community members remain concerned that the communication level is not enough.

“The council is at odds and has developed some animosity,” said Paul Allen, who has lived in the city more than 40 years.

“I believe Mayor Schwartz’s proposal is vital for maintaining the health of neighborhoods that adjoin Cal Poly, and for that matter, all neighborhoods in the city that are, and will continue to feel the effects of increasing enrollment at Cal Poly,” he said.

The final EIR for the new freshman dormitory is nearing completion and will be presented for approval to the California State University trustees in mid-May.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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