When Andrew Firestone, one of the developers of a 75-foot-tall project proposed in downtown San Luis Obispo, met recently with groups of young professionals about his plan, one concern rose to the top: the need for more affordable and workforce housing in the city.
So, Firestone and his partners proposed a change: Eliminate one floor of office space in one of the two proposed new buildings at Monterey and Santa Rosa streets and replace it with more housing. The plan at 1101 Monterey St. now calls for four floors of workforce and affordable housing in one of the buildings, while the other would still be a hotel with some retail or restaurant space.
Firestone said he’s in discussions with nonprofit organization Peoples’ Self-Help Housing on the residential part of the project. The number of housing units has not been determined.
But whether the plan moves forward remains to be seen. The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission discussed it Wednesday night during a conceptual review; the City Council will have a chance to do the same Feb. 16.
After that, Firestone and Jess Parker of Santa Barbara-based hospitality firm StonePark Capital, and Nick Tompkins of NKT Commercial, will have to decide whether they have enough support for a 75-foot-tall project — which would be two of the tallest buildings downtown — to move forward.
The lot is the site of a former Shell service station; Tompkins has approval to build two one-story, 5,000-square-foot commercial buildings there.
“We want to make sure we are creating a good project that can be approved but one that is viable and allows us to get done the things we want to get done,” Firestone said Wednesday. Also proposed is a 45-foot-tall public parking garage and transit center on two adjacent properties fronting Higuera Street.
Height remains a sticking point.
Two words: Too big.
Diane Duenow, San Luis Obispo resident
During Wednesday’s commission meeting, Firestone said 75 feet is necessary for the project to be financially viable. Supporters said the tall building is a good use of a downtown infill lot, could provide a striking gateway to downtown and is the only way to get a significant number of new housing units.
Opponents said the plan is too massive, would degrade the city’s small-town charm and wipe out views of the surrounding hills.
“Two words: Too big,” San Luis Obispo resident Diane Duenow said.
“The question really is, do we need a 75-foot building in this town?” Bill Cochran added. “You can put a price on that hotel, but you can’t put a price on that hill.”
But Dave Garth, former longtime president of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, said the urban core is the appropriate place for taller buildings.
“If we don’t, we will push that development to the outskirts or to other cities,” he said.
And Jerry Rioux, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Housing Trust Fund, said he supports the project because it includes housing.
“Even workforce housing is out of the reach of people who live and work in the community,” Rioux said. “I believe this location is good for a larger scale mixed-use development.”
Many housing authorities define workforce housing as homes aimed at households earning from 120 percent to 160 percent of the area’s median income (AMI), according to the Economic Vitality Corp. Affordable housing is generally used for households whose income is less than 60 percent of the AMI.
The AMI in 2015 for a household of three was estimated at $69,400 in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A workforce income for a family of three is $110,880, while a very low income for a three-person family at 50 percent of the AMI is $34,700, according to the Housing Trust Fund.
The proposed development is located just outside the downtown-commercial zone — it’s zoned retail-commercial — which allows for buildings 45 feet tall.
In the downtown-commercial zone, they can be 50 feet tall, but the city’s Planning Commission may allow a maximum building height of 75 feet if the project meets at least two policy objectives — such as affordable and workforce housing, pedestrian amenities, historic preservation or energy efficiency.
If there’s any place in the city where there should be a 75-foot building, it should be this site.
San Luis Obispo Planning Commissioner William Riggs
The county government center, across the street from Firestone’s project, is 65 feet tall. In addition, the city parking garage at Palm and Morro streets is 80 feet at its tallest point, and the Anderson Hotel on Monterey Street is 65 feet at the parapet and 90 feet at the top of the bell tower, according to past Tribune articles.
In December, four members of the city’s Architectural Review Commission suggested during a conceptual review that the applicants lower the height, though several said they would be willing to accept a building as tall as 60 feet.
Firestone didn’t receive overwhelming support for 75 feet from the city’s planning commissioners either, though several said a taller building is appropriate in this location and pointed out that even a 45-foot building would block views. (Commissioner John Fowler recused himself from the item because he is the president/CEO of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing.)
Commissioner William Riggs was on board: “If there’s any place in the city where there should be a 75-foot building, it should be this site.”
Several other commissioners hesitated to make a strong statement.
“I’m not sure I’m totally averse to 75, but I would love to see the design sort of spread the height a little bit across the site,” Commissioner Hemalata Dandekar said. “I’m not saying no, but I would wish it could stay within the 45-to-60-foot range that ARC recommends.”
Commissioner Ronald Malak said he was leaning more toward 45 feet but changed his mind because of the additional affordable housing in the project.
“I’m not sure of 75 feet, but 60 feet would be good,” he added. “I’d be hesitant and would like to see something a little lower.”