A mixed-use project planned for a private parking lot in the historic district of downtown San Luis Obispo was rejected by the San Luis Obispo City Council this week because of its contemporary architectural design.
Developer Hamish Marshall, who bought the lot with several other partners in 2005, wants to build nine condominiums and about 8,000 square feet of office space on a half-acre site at 1327 Osos St.
The project must now be redesigned and brought back for review by the city’s advisory bodies and the City Council.
The city’s Architectural Review Commission had recently approved the project, and on Monday the council voted unanimously to uphold two appeals to that decision. Council members also expressed concern over an apparent disconnect between two city panels.
The city’s Cultural Heritage Committee, which reviews developments in the city’s historic districts, had twice denied the project because of its inconsistency with the historic preservation guidelines.
“One nuance with the review of new development in historic zones is that the CHC’s review of project designs is a recommendation to the ARC, not a final action,” said city planner Pam Ricci. “The ARC is the city’s advisory body to approve the final project design of projects, unless appealed to the City Council.”
Councilman Dan Carpenter said he agreed with the CHC that the project was inconsistent with its historical surroundings. “It is unfortunate your project has fallen into this quagmire,” he said.
Mayor Jan Marx said, “I was shocked to see this very modern building in the historic district. The ARC is not authorized to make policy, and it looks like they are veering in that direction.”
The project was first submitted to the city in 2008, and later approved, but stalled because of the economic downturn. Significant changes to the project design were made to it that required new approvals by the city.
One such change was the shift from a neo-Victorian design to a flat-roofed contemporary design.
Marx said the project had a lot of potential but did not blend with the surrounding area.
“If you can take it and beam me up Scotty and put it down somewhere else in the city then it is great,” Marx said. “It’s the context of where it located, its sharp contrast with the surroundings, (that it) does block views and takes away from the historic nearby structures.”
Alice Davis, who owns a 1906 house now used as office space adjacent to the proposed project, was one of the appellants.
Her concerns included the architectural style of the project, the inclusion of rooftop decks on the condominiums and the mass of the buildings, which she said would block all sunlight from her property and require a large, unsightly firewall between her property and the development.
The Cultural Heritage Committee denied the project in November 2013 and again in June 2014, saying the contemporary design clashed with nearby buildings and was inconsistent with the city’s historic preservation guidelines.
City Planner Pam Ricci said that several changes were made to the project to heed those concerns including replacing proposed metal siding with more natural materials and stepping the project back from adjacent buildings.
In September the city’s Architectural Review Commission approved it, triggering two separate appeals of the project filed by adjacent property owners on Morro Street.
Because the project was appealed, the City Council was asked to review it.
The project site is in the middle of the block diagonally across from the city’s parking structure on Morro Street, and facing Grace Church on Osos Street. It is bordered by a medical complex and a white English Craftsman-type church built in 1907, now occupied by Seventh-Day Adventists. The church is considered a historic resource.
“We’ve made so many changes along the way,” Marshall said. “Obviously a lot of them were acceptable, but they want to see more of the historical nature of the buildings in the downtown in the design. The hardest part is going to be to get consensus between the ARC and the CHC.”