Tiny homes, rooftop bars and a denser downtown are the future of SLO, City Council says

Hope’s Village of SLO and its president Becky Jorgeson, seen here in March 2015, are working toward a goal of building a village of tiny homes like these to provide permanent homes for people who are homeless.
Hope’s Village of SLO and its president Becky Jorgeson, seen here in March 2015, are working toward a goal of building a village of tiny homes like these to provide permanent homes for people who are homeless. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A denser city with smaller-sized and tiny homes, rooftop decks and more bikers and walkers is the San Luis Obispo City Council's vision for the future.

It was with the overarching theme of a more affordable, livable city for everyone that the council began reviewing proposed new zoning laws currently under draft by city staffers with input from the Planning Commission.

Tuesday's meeting was one of a handful in advance of a formal vote on zoning laws in August.

"We do need housing," Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson said. "Everyone knows that’s a major goal. But everyone knows housing can create impacts. We want to make sure our zoning doesn’t created unintended consequences."

Christianson, like other council members, said she'd like to "revise housing density calculations to encourage smaller units; hopefully, we’re getting some affordable-by-design implications."

Council members said they're also in favor of encouraging the construction of tiny homes and granny flat units. And they're on board with allowing rooftop uses, so long as they don't bother neighbors.

The city is concentrating development to its interior areas while preserving green spaces on the outer edges.

The new policy would be San Luis Obispo's first zoning update in 15 years as it moves toward its planned build-out to reach a population of about 57,000 by 2035. The city currently has about 46,000 people.

Zoning regulations control how property is developed, with limits on how many homes can be built within designated areas, among other laws.

"This is important stuff that's going to shape the community for the foreseeable future," City Manager Derek Johnson said.

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Installation of 30 new manufactured homes at a revamped 1.44-acre mobile home park in downtown San Luis Obispo is underway. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

But opponents of proposed new zoning regulations say the laws as conceived would gut the community of its charm and small-town feel.

"We are fighting for the heart and soul of San Luis Obispo," said Allan Cooper, of the group Save Our Downtown. "We all believe the SLO life will be a thing of the past should the city continue to move this aggressively toward densification — toward stacking and packing more people into tighter quarters while making across-the-board reductions in parking requirements."

Cooper also accused the council of catering to opportunistic developers who stand to make big profits from "a very aggressive trend toward densification."

"Many of the (city's) property owners and landlords, myself included, are in opposition to these proposed policy changes," Cooper said. "But we are not speaking from personal financial interest. We don't represent the monied interest."

Christianson called the process "stressful" because of its scope and importance, saying the council has spent the past four years talking about the need for zoning changes in line with its other new policies.

"The zoning update will help with our housing, transportation, climate action, fiscal responsibility and multi-modal goals," said Christianson, who supported the direction of the draft plan.

The city has adopted four major city goals, which align with the zoning update, according to council members:

Increase production of all housing types, especially for low-income residents, through higher density and closeness to transportation options.

Prioritize a Bicycle Master Plan, pedestrian safety and a short-range transit plan.

Implement climate action planning to reduce the city's carbon emissions and increase renewable energy.

Create a fiscally healthy city with a thriving economy.

The idea behind higher density is that more people would be living in San Luis Obispo rather than commuting into work from out of town. And smaller, new homes hypothetically will be affordable by design.

But skeptics believe home prices won't necessarily drop in a desirable community where costs have spiked to a median well over $600,000.

The area's median income is about $58,000 for a single person and $83,000 for a family of four, the base used to set price-restricted homes for lower income residents.

Highlights of the proposed zoning changes include:

Denser neighborhoods — More potential houses would be allowed with incentives to build multiple smaller-sized homes on lots. Under current city policy, a 6,000-square-foot property could have a three-bedroom home but not separate two-bedroom and one-bedroom homes, for example, which would be adjusted to allow that flexibility. Zoning for various-sized lots and a variety of home sizes also would allow for more smaller homes, as opposed to existing policy.

A denser downtown — In the downtown and the upper Monterey Street district, planned homes under 600 square feet would not be subject to any density restrictions. The laws currently provide limits to how many homes can be built on a property based on it's zoning designation. But the new homes would have to provide affordable units and clean energy under proposed city incentive policy. Design guidelines including height, setbacks from the street and parking would still apply.

More tiny homes — Tiny homes on wheels would be allowed in backyards with safe water, wastewater and electrical hookups to prevent sewage leakages and fires, among other hazards. Tiny homes on wheels now are defined under housing policy as RVs and only can be parked temporarily.

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Becky Jorgeson, the president of Hope's Village, an advocate for tiny homes like the one shown behind her. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Rooftop regulations — The city is working toward a policy allowing uses of rooftop decks on residential and commercial properties, including at bars and entertainment venues, given they don't create noise and privacy nuisances to neighbors.

Parking requirement reductions — The city also plans to reduce the number of parking spaces required for new developments as it strives to decrease personal car travel in favor of walking, biking and mass transit. Reducing parking, however, would require proof those spaces aren't needed through the use of on-site car sharing, reserved parking spots for carpooling vehicles and projects in proximity to mass transit and alternative transportation options.

A streamlined planning review process — The Planning Commission would take on more responsibility for project application approval from the Architectural Review Commission. Also, projects under 10,000 square feet and five housing units would be reviewed by city staff, while projects over 10,000 square feet or more than five units would be reviewed at public meetings by the Architecture Review Commission and Planning Commission. Both processes would allow for appeal to the City Council.

Mayor Heidi Harmon recommended the city's staff examine several other possibilities for zoning regulation.

Those include: allowing flexibility for re-zoning auto row on Los Osos Valley Road in the future if the driverless car industry takes off; ensuring zoning for mobile home parks and residential care facilities for aging residents; and microbusinesses that could allow for small business on residential blocks, a model that Portland, Oregon uses.

"Things are really in a state of flux," Harmon said. "I hope we’re allowing for as much flexibility as that unclear future demands. One of the things we can count on is things being significantly different in 15 years."

The city's Planning Commission will continue to review the zoning regulation drafts in upcoming meetings every second and fourth Wednesday of the month at City Hall at 990 Palm St. Meetings begin at 6 p.m. A community workshop on zoning also will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 3 at the City-County library at 995 Palm St.

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