I was surprised to read Mr. Allan Cooper’s opinion piece in The Tribune arguing that changes being proposed in the city’s zoning update are bad for the future of San Luis Obispo. The zoning changes proposed are simply based on the city’s 2014 General Plan update, on a true desire by our community to find better ways of doing business, and on common sense. Many of the proposed changes are exactly what Mr. Cooper and his organization Save Our Downtown have advocated for years.
Most importantly, the changes to the zoning code are exactly what the community has asked for — clearer development standards and a path to build more housing. I’d like to address a couple of Mr. Cooper’s many erroneous and confusing statements here.
Let’s take Mr. Cooper’s assertion about the Architectural Review Commission; i.e. that the proposed changes lessen public input. The public — including Save Our Downtown — has long complained about a level of confusion, inefficiency and uncertainty of the scheduling of the Architectural Review Commission's and other advisory bodies' important work. Advisory body members themselves have been asking for more clarity regarding the drift into increasingly overlapping roles since Mr. Cooper and I were both on the Planning Commission together 15 years ago. The public has long asked for a simpler, easier-to-follow process, one that didn’t entail multiple separate venues of review, and didn’t result in the time and expense of multiple appeals on the same project.
The proposed change does not lessen the public’s opportunity to provide input — in fact, that same public input will come earlier in the process, before projects get too far along, and while there is a better opportunity to give critical feedback. There will also be transparency for the public and applicants about which advisory bodies a project will appear in front of, and in what order — something not always clear in the past.
Architectural Review Committee members will not be required to rule on an area of expertise (e.g. California Environmental Quality Act) that they aren’t particularly familiar with and didn’t sign up for; that will remain the Planning Commission’s role, as it was legally intended to be. Far fewer resources spent trying to figure out what the process is supposed to be, and focusing instead on the real issues presented by applications, early and up front.
Our city is desperate for more ideas about improved government operations, less costly ways of doing business — this is a perfect example of a change that saves time and money, provides the same opportunity for public input, and makes that input much more useful and impactful. Mr. Cooper’s objections make no sense, especially in light of his own organization’s repeated requests for such a change.
Members of Save Our Downtown also have said they support more housing in the downtown core — because residents living downtown bring energy, resources and best of all, “eyes on the street." Those eyes downtown promote public safety, a downtown neighborhood and new residents to support downtown businesses. Getting actual reasonably priced housing units built is more difficult, due not only to the high cost of real estate, but also to the city’s obsolete zoning rules regarding density calculations and parking requirements. SLO’s old methods of calculating parking and density for smaller units are antiquated (over 20 years old) and prevent good designs and good buildings from being built. I can remember being on the Planning Commission with Mr. Cooper as even then we asked for better rules to help facilitate smarter, less expensive housing projects. Fifteen years is long enough to wait for change!
Last, I will gently say that Mr. Cooper’s referrals to “monied interests” are what many people these days understand as an exhausted red herring, an argument from the 1990s that makes no sense in this context. The city doesn’t build housing; local property owners with land and money do. I believe most residents understand we need to get some housing built, and I ask Save Our Downtown to “walk the talk” with the city.
Save Our Downtown made several good suggestions at the zoning hearing, which the council enthusiastically agreed with and directed staff to incorporate into the new update; why didn’t Mr. Cooper mention those successes in working together? I urge a more cooperative and forward-thinking collaboration with SOD along those lines — helpful suggestions instead of “just say no."
For members of the public wondering how they can get involved, please come to the next zoning update public open house May 3, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the City-County Library. You can drop by anytime and provide input, and then head down to Thursday Farmers Market. We’d love to hear from you!
Carlyn Christianson is a member of the San Luis Obispo City Council.