SLO spends $20,000 on memo encouraging cooperation with Cal Poly on housing, growth

A detailed report contracted by the city of San Luis Obispo paints a picture of the city's limited power to influence Cal Poly's on-campus development to address the local housing crunch, while adding that there is ongoing discussion between the two entities on the issue as the university grows.

The city released a 19-page document outlining the legal framework that defines the relationship and cites higher concentrations of students living off campus in the city as a quality-of-life concern.

The city spent $19,638 to fund the report compiled by the law firm Best, Best & Krieger as a reference for future planning and to address community members' concerns.

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"For a long time, we've heard from a small but very frustrated group of the community on these issues related to Cal Poly and housing," Mayor Heidi Harmon said. "This white paper provided some legal remedies to see what might work or what won't work."

The city's power is limited because the university campus is in state jurisdiction, and the report noted that "Cal Poly, as a state agency, is often exempt from city regulation."

"I'm not sure there’s anything obvious or shocking about the memo," said City Attorney Christine Dietrick. "It describes many of the obvious tools we are already using. There's no magic bullet to solve these problems."

The report encourages close collaboration with the university to increase on-campus housing, phasing new development so it's appropriately linked to enrollment growth, with the idea that local housing isn't overburdened by student tenants — which the university agrees is mutually beneficial.

"Providing additional on-campus housing for students is a preferred solution to the increasing concentrations of students living in nearby low-density neighborhoods," the report sates.

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The white paper also said the city can and should hold Cal Poly accountable to pay its fair share to mitigate city infrastructure impacts under state environmental impact laws, as new Cal Poly housing will affect roadways, utilities, policing and other city resources.

However, university officials say they're in agreement with cost-sharing, and believe they can work together well with the city on housing and development.

"In general, the university has always been vocal about its willingness to pay its fair share," Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said. "... The university views its relationship with the city as strong, positive and open."

City-Cal Poly collaboration

The city is in the process of working with the university on housing and cost-sharing for infrastructure as Cal Poly completes its Master Plan Update, a blueprint for campus growth over the next two decades.

Cal Poly projects that it will house 65 percent of all of its students on campus over the next 20 years, capping enrollment at 25,000. Cal Poly reported 22,188 students enrolled this fall.

"Cal Poly strongly believes that housing more students on campus is good for the students themselves as well as for the city and its neighborhoods," Lazier said.

Lazier said the university isn't releasing any information on specific timelines on new housing beyond its new 1,475-bed yakʔitʸutʸu freshman residential complex at the campus’ Grand Avenue entrance set to open in Fall 2018 and a proposed workforce housing development nearby.

But the city still has concerns about how much enrollment could grow and the strain that additional housing could place on the city's infrastructure.

The city sent the university a 140-page letter in January as a public comment on the Master Plan that cites "a number of troubling environmental issues which the (draft environmental impact report of the university's Master Plan Update) does not properly evaluate," including impacts to the city's water, wastewater, traffic and public safety resources.

Poly Canyon Village housing complex on Cal Poly’s campus. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The city also believes enrollment could spike to 27,000 because Cal Poly may implement summer school or year-round classes.

While litigation by the city against the university is an option if the university believes infrastructure impact mitigations aren't properly addressed, city officials don't envision a lawsuit.

"We can much better use resources toward solutions than we can with litigation, which would cost a lot," Dietrick said. "Negotiation is the preferred approach."

Lazier said that the university is in the process of responding to all public comments in regard to its draft Master Plan Update. The plan doesn't have a timeline for approval consideration by the California State University Board of Trustees.

As for enrollment, "while 25,000 is our target, it is impossible for the university to say definitively that circumstances over the 20-year lifespan of the ongoing update won’t dictate a change in approach to enrollment," Lazier said.

"Speaking broadly, Cal Poly and the city want the same things, and the university will continue to do its part to keep an open and ongoing dialogue with the city," Lazier said. "... Cal Poly will continue to work closely with city officials moving forward on the Master Plan update and on specific project plans as they emerge."

Harmon, whose mayoral campaign included urging Cal Poly to increase its housing on campus, said that despite the cooperative relationship, at times tensions exist over housing and infrastructure matters.

"We do have a good relationship, and I think it's important to keep it that way," Harmon said. "But it's like a marriage, and sometimes you have to call your partner out to make the relationship healthy and good moving forward."

Potential remedies

Other key points of the legal memo include:

▪ The city, Cal Poly and other public agencies could partner on development projects to achieve workforce housing, encouraging new housing for university staff and non-students (land costs and financing, despite government programs, are challenges, however).

The city could purchase land and implement owner-occupied stipulations, which could encourage workforce housing for non-students (Funding to buy land, however, would be a challenge). The city can't legally impose owner-occupied restrictions on private properties without a developer's voluntary cooperation.

▪ The city could permit "efficiency units" of dwelling units with one habitable room of at least 150 square feet for occupancy by no more than two people. That type of housing could attract students and possibly free up existing housing elsewhere in the community.

A multifamily housing exit fee (versus a monthly parking fee) could be imposed each time a vehicle leaves the property's lot to discourage car traffic. That would encourage alternative transportation, helping to improve citywide traffic and air quality.

The city could establish a "responsible resident" policy in properties of 15 people or more residents who must provide contact information to surrounding property owners in advance of events aimed at curbing partying and noise.

▪ Increased fines in certain geographical areas at certain dates and times could deter public drunkenness; entertainment permit options for businesses could offer more late-night bars and clubs to indirectly deter partying at private residences in the city.

Cal Poly officials noted that the city, Cal Poly and Cuesta College all have worked collaboratively to improve neighborhood wellness.

"For Cal Poly, this includes our educated renter program that has been in place for two years; greater involvement in the socialization aspects of fraternities; increased programming on-campus to make that campus itself a focus of student life; and involvement in holding students accountable for behavior off-campus that violates the Cal Poly Student Code of Conduct," Lazier said.

Cal Poly's city housing stock

Cal Poly's current property stock in the city includes about three dozen beds for student housing in the Cal Poly Lofts downtown, leased space for its University Store and some alumni office spaces in the downtown.

Adjacent to the campus, the Cal Poly Corp. owns three houses at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Slack Street and five units in the Bella Montana development at Santa Rosa Street and Highland Drive.

Property the university owns or leases off-campus for educational purposes likely would be subject to local tax exemptions, unless the university partners with private developers, according to the memo.

"At this time, there are no specific plans for additional purchasing or leasing of residential or commercial properties within the city," Lazier said.

Managing housing policy

The legal memo warns about the potential for housing applications in the city that mirror dormitories and "are intended to be rented by the bed rather than by the unit." The city of Davis has seen similar applications, the memo notes.

The new Academy Chorro project at 22 Chorro St., a privately owned housing complex set to open for use in September, has posted ads for leases by the bed at $1,300 to $1,400 per month.

"The city has approved one project and the other will be going to the council in early 2018," the report states. "It is the city of Davis’s belief that these projects are a reaction to incredibly low vacancy rates and lack of adequate dormitory space on campus."

The solution to prevent dormitory-style housing in the community is more housing on campus, the report states.

Allan Cooper, a leader in the city watchdog group Save Our Downtown, said he read the memo and encourages a fair-share agreement of Cal Poly's financial obligations on infrastructure that includes a stipulation that Cal Poly will not increase its share of water usage "as the city will need all the water it can procure given prospects for increasing droughts in the near future."

Cooper also recommends a plan where campus property is leased to a private company, which then builds housing for use by a variety of campus-related people.

"This could accelerate the construction of more on-campus housing," Cooper said.

Nick Wilson: 805-781-7922, @NickWilsonTrib