A new entertainment center, including a 13-lane bowling alley, may soon be coming to a key vacant location in downtown San Luis Obispo.
After some debate about whether the new facility is more of a bar than a bowling alley, restaurant or concert venue, San Luis Obispo planning commissioners approved plans for the 24,500-square-foot building that most recently housed Sports Authority.
In a 3-1 vote with one abstention, San Luis Obispo planning commissioners gave the green light Wednesday to a project at 1144 Chorro St. called Discovery San Luis Obispo. The project includes a 13-lane bowling alley, concert venue and restaurant with late-night alcohol service.
A majority of commissioners also decided the new facility should close at midnight — not 2 a.m. as the applicant, Jeremy Pemberton, managing partner of Discovery San Luis Obispo, had requested.
Commissioner Michael Draze, who voted against the proposal, said he could not support the project because he believes it will be seen as one new large bar.
“You’re asking us to approve a huge bar in the middle of San Luis Obispo, and that’s where I have a problem,” he said.
Other commissioners, while acknowledging the bar component, said it would offer new amenities that are not available downtown. Besides bowling, the concert venue space and other parts of the building could be rented for special events, from weddings to company parties.
“We have struggled with rental space for special events downtown,” Commissioner John Larson said. “I think this project can help fill that void.”
Commissioners John Fowler and Ronald Malak were absent from Wednesday’s meeting. The Planning Commission’s decision is final unless it is appealed to the City Council within 10 days.
Discovery San Luis Obispo includes a bowling alley with seven lanes on the ground floor and six lanes on a mezzanine level; a concert venue with a maximum occupancy of 393 people; upper and basement-level lounges; and a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. Full food service would be available at all times alcohol is served.
“What I love about Discovery is it truly becomes a community event center,” said Pemberton, who is also managing partner of Discovery Ventura, a renovated bowling alley that he operates with his brother, Joshua. The Ventura facility offers nine lanes, shuffleboard and billiards, live music, a bar and banquet space.
Jeremy Pemberton, who lives in Morro Bay, said he envisioned the San Luis Obispo center drawing all types of patrons: children’s birthday parties, Rotary clubs, and people who want to rent the concert space as a banquet hall.
After some debate, Commissioners Hemalata Dandekar and Michael Multari joined Draze in voting in favor of staff’s recommendation to close the venue at midnight.
Pemberton argued in favor of keeping his facility open until 2 a.m.
“At 11:30 at night, 12 o'clock, where can you go to find high-quality food,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. What happens when you get out of the Willie Nelson show and want to get a bite to eat?”
Pemberton said he does not plan to appeal the Planning Commission decision to the City Council but that closing at midnight “caps the earning potential of the operation, which forces me to reduce the overall investment into the property.”
He did not disclose how much the project would cost but hopes to open in the fourth quarter of this year.
Commissioner William Riggs argued in favor of allowing Discovery San Luis Obispo to stay open until 2 a.m., saying it was unfair for commissioners to decide which new facilities should close early when older bars can stay open later.
“It reeks of unfairness,” said Riggs, who abstained in the final vote on the project.
“I’ve sat here on this dais until midnight and wanted to get a drink after these meetings and I have not been able to,” he said. “What logic are you going by that gives us the ability to legislate 12 a.m.? If I don’t want to go to a bar-bar, like Bull’s Tavern … then you’re stuck.”
But Multari said he supported the earlier closure, noting that more mixed-use residential projects are being built or proposed for downtown.
“The fact we have older bars open until 2, I don't think justifies us continuing down that path,” he said. “I would like to see a transformation in downtown where it really does become more of a residential area, and where some respect for those residences are afforded by those late-night activities.”
Staff recommended the business close at midnight based in part on a 2009 study that found a disproportionate number of police calls occurred at or near downtown liquor establishments late at night.
Recent numbers support that finding, said Doug Davidson, deputy director of the city’s community development department.
In 2012, the City Council approved regulations to give the city more supervision of businesses that “morph” from restaurants into nightclubs or bars after their kitchens close.
Restaurants that serve alcohol after 11 p.m. now must get an administrative use permit, which allows the city to apply conditions like requiring food service to continue when alcohol is served.
Only about a dozen people attended Wednesday’s meeting. Two residents spoke against the plan, and a few others sent letters to planning commissioners ahead of the meeting.
“The uses proposed are not ones that will encourage citizens of the town to come to the downtown area,” wrote Sandra Lakeman, a member of Save Our Downtown, a grass-roots group dedicated to preserving downtown. “It appears to be another business complying with desires of the thousands of college students.”
Five other people at the meeting spoke in support of the plan. The commission also received two letters in support of the Discovery Ventura.
Ventura Community Development Director Jeffrey Lambert said that the Pembertons “have proven their ability to provide high-quality, community-friendly entertainment experiences in a safe manner while mitigating noise and neighborhood impacts.”
Nearby San Luis Obispo property owner Stan Carpenter also spoke in support: “I can tell you that downtown is a lifestyle destination, and I think this fits right in there,” he said.