The face of San Luis Obispo is changing faster and more radically than ever before, as high-built developments remake our low-built downtown, and suburban tracts rise up on previously open land.
For many people, the town they remembered is becoming unrecognizable. Even in 2015, the New York Times travel section was snarking that “downtown SLO can at times feel a bit like a mall with palm trees,” adding that “smaller Paso Robles has fewer offerings but more character.”
A looming new project, San Luis Square, threatens the character of one of our oldest designed landscapes, the Jack House gardens, with a 60-foot-high brick and glass wall rising five feet from its perimeter.
A 60-foot-wall next to a public park and historic garden may be a great idea; it may be a terrible idea. It is, as far as I can ascertain, a unique idea. But it is an idea the city has chosen not to assess with any kind of environmental review.
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San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee voted five months ago that the potential impact of placing a line of buildings rising to sixty feet — roughly the height of the Anderson Hotel — next to the Jack House gardens, whose design, structures, trees, light, and views date back to the 1870s, legally required environmental impact study under the California Environmental Quality Act.
In the recent court case over the 71 Palomar housing development, the city touted, and the court confirmed, the committee as the city’s source of expertise on historic resources. In the case of San Luis Square and the Jack House gardens, the city decided that the committee’s expertise was ignorable.
The city had no contact with the committee on this issue for five months until announcing a week before the Architectural Review Commission’s hearing on the San Luis Square project that the Community Development Department was rejecting any formal environmental examination.
The arguments are too legalistic to keep even Tribune readers awake, but they boil down to the gardens and their outbuildings (photographically documented for 140 years) not really being a historic resource, the brick wall being next to, and not actually in, the garden, and no one having bothered to worry about these issues before the project was proposed.
In fact, the city fathers and mothers did worry about these issues. San Luis Obispo’s community development guidelines state unequivocally that “New buildings shall not obstruct views from, or sunlight to, publicly owned gathering places including, but not limited to, Mission Plaza, the Jack House gardens, and Cheng Park.”
Of course, the city says “views” means only “the view of Cerro San Luis,” not of trees or the sky or anything else that makes parks into urban refuges. And the developer has created a computer model that shows sunlight won’t be obstructed by its buildings. (However, if you go out to the Jack House gardens at the times their model shows, there won’t be any shade from the current redwoods, which are about the height and location of the proposed buildings; the shadow stretches across the garden.)
As Jane Jacobs points out in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” nobody uses a dark park.
The Cultural Heritage Committee is charged with preserving the city’s character and its “architectural, archaeological, historical and cultural resources” —the things that make it recognizable and significant to the people who live here.
Without a past, all places are the same, “a mall with palm trees.” And if the city can lay claim to the committee’s expertise one day and ignore it the next, there’s no point having a cultural heritage committee at all.
Look at the developer’s proposal for San Luis Square at the Architectural Review Commission’s website, www.slocity.org/government/advisory-bodies/agendas-and-minutes/administrative-review-board. Go to the commission’s hearing at 5 p.m. Monday in the City Council Chamber at City Hall to make your opinion known, or contact staff liason Doug Davison at 805-781-7177 or email@example.com.
My own opinion is the Cultural Heritage Committee made the correct decision that an initial study of environmental impact is mandated under CEQA. If the city refuses to allow such a study, the ARC should reject the project in its current form.
Correction: The headline has been changed to better reflect the author’s position.
James Papp is chair of the city of San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee and an architectural historian qualified to U.S. Secretary of the Interior professional standards.