Atascadero officials want to remake the city’s downtown — which may involve preventing new medical offices from moving into an area already saturated with doctors and dentists.
The Planning Commission on Tuesday night voted to advance a plan that would take away existing parking incentives and require new ground-floor office owners to submit to a public-hearing process. In addition, ground floor residential uses would also be prohibited.
The zoning code amendments would apply only to newly built residences and medical offices — existing doctors, dentists and psychologists can continue practicing. New practices could be established in existing space — for example, if one doctor were to turn over his practice to another — unless offices were left empty for six months or longer.
“Those offices are in a great place,” said Phil Dunsmore, the city’s community development director. “... It’s not saying we want them to go away.”
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Dunsmore said the zoning change is mostly meant to prevent additional medical offices that may try to set up shop in the downtown area, especially near the Sunken Gardens. Instead, city leaders want to encourage more dining and retail uses downtown and create synergy between businesses, he said.
“This has been one of our goals,” Dunsmore said. “To shift the land uses.”
A few residents and property and business owners spoke at the meeting, saying they want a more vibrant downtown with businesses that will attract visitors and encourage them to spend time at existing restaurants and shops.
Barbara Nuñez, owner of the The ARTery on Traffic Way, said some of her fellow small business owners don’t get the customers they need to pay their rent.
“Unfortunately, a lot of those offices don’t bring the pedestrian traffic,” she said.
But dentists and medical professionals — many of whom have offices on East and West Mall near City Hall — also spoke, saying their businesses are valuable to the community and do their part to draw visitors to Atascadero.
Dr. Laurie Ferguson, who owns Spark Psychological Services on Entrada Avenue, said she can only rent her ground-floor offices to other therapists or counselors due to confidentiality requirements.
“When patients come to our offices, they do not just bring their troubles and leave with a new perspective,” she said. “They also bring their cash to spend at local retailers, restaurants and salons.”
Dr. Matthew Coons of Atascadero Family Dentistry, located on West Mall, said it’s very expensive to move medical offices — in fact, his practice has been located in the downtown area for about 60 years. But Coons said he doesn’t mind the plan presented Tuesday night.
“This time around, it seems that the proposal is much more understanding of those of us who own dental offices and medical offices,” he said.
Although planning commissioners said they understood medical office owners’ concerns, some also questioned whether the proposed zoning change would go far enough to produce change downtown.
Commissioner Josh Donovan said the feedback he’s gotten from the community has been in favor of shifting medical offices out of the area. Under the current proposal, practices could be sold without triggering a public hearing, which could keep some offices downtown for a long time to come.
“If it’s sold again, is it going to be a dentist office forever?” he asked.
Ultimately, commissioners voted 6-0 to recommend the zoning change to the City Council. Commissioner Tom Zirk abstained from the vote. Council members will consider the proposal at an upcoming meeting.