Maximum building heights could rise from 45 to 75 feet in the upper Monterey Street corridor of San Luis Obispo if the City Council adopts a policy change recommended by the Planning Commission.
The commission last week unanimously favored a change that would allow for increased building heights in the Monterey Street area from Santa Rosa Street to Pepper Street, in line with downtown-commercial zoning that allows for height limits of up to 75 feet if certain development requirements are met.
The Monterey area now zoned retail-commercial (with 45-foot height limits) includes properties on seven city blocks, where existing businesses include iFixit, Taqueria Santa Cruz Express, and Smith Volvo. Those businesses would not be affected unless a new project affecting their building comes forward.
Even where 75-foot buildings are allowed downtown, project proposals have met with criticism, including from some who have commented online on a recently proposed 75-foot project at 1144 Chorro St.
In the downtown commercial zone, buildings can be 50 feet tall, but the 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.
The City Council will review the proposed change along Monterey Street for formal adoption on Aug. 21 as part of a broad, citywide zoning update.
The upper Monterey zoning change would also allow for half as much parking as the current standards stipulate for new development.
The upper Monterey area is the only area of the city being considered for maximum building height increases as part of the city's zoning update, according to Doug Davidson, the city's deputy director of community development.
Arguments for and against
Commissioners supported the idea of encouraging more housing and commercial building uses in the upper Monterey section of the city, saying the General Plan serves as a guide for the proposed zoning change.
Other considerations included the Downtown Concept Plan that put forth a long-term vision, calling for taller buildings in that area. That plan, drafted by a volunteer Vision Team of community experts, offers guidance for the city, though it isn't policy.
"Being part of the Downtown Vision Team, there was a lot of discussion about this particular area and how great it would be to see more housing, more street level commercial to sort of draw folks into that area," said Commissioner Chuck Stevenson. "It would be a great area for more housing. I don’t think we want to put that potential off into the future (by waiting to adopt the zoning change pending further study)."
But community opponents say tall buildings could block views and negatively impact the character of the city.
"Members of (the San Luis Obispo advocacy group) Save Our Downtown have warned that simply extending the downtown height limit to this area will have premature and adverse consequences on the small scale of the area," said James Lopes, speaking on behalf of Save Our Downtown. "Doing so could very well attract proposals for seven-story hotels and dorm housing."
75-foot buildings have been controversial
A recent proposal by the real estate company Jamestown envisions a 75-foot project of mixed-use retail, office and housing at 1144 Chorro St., across from the 62-foot-tall city parking structure on Marsh Street. If completed as proposed, the new building would become one of the tallest in San Luis Obispo.
The Chorro Street proposal, in the early states of the planning review process, already has met with comments that a six-story building there is too bulky and incompatible with the city's charm and character. But advocates say it would bring needed housing in the form of smaller units on its upper floors, as well as office space for technology companies (the ground floor would offer retail).
In 2015, developer Nick Tompkins proposed a 75-foot mixed-use building at the corner of Monterey and Santa Rosa, the site of a former Shell gas station, which drew some community opposition.
But Tompkins later reduced the scale to a three-story, 45-foot mixed-use building after an economic analysis led to a revision.
In relation to the proposed upper Monterey zoning change, Save Our Downtown believes existing parking is insufficient for tall buildings and recommends waiting for the city to complete its Upper Monterey Area Plan, which the city plans to do as part of an upcoming Land Use and Circulation Element to further examine the potential for building heights.
Funding for the Upper Monterey Area Plan, which would focus on specific policy considerations for the corridor, will be sought in the city's 2019-21 Financial Plan, city officials said.
"There’s quite a difference in level of impact between six- and seven-story buildings and three- and four-story buildings," Lopes said.
How the upper Monterey zoning would change
Upper Monterey is currently zoned retail-commercial and the new zoning change would "overlay" the downtown development-commercial standards, allowing developers to apply for projects under either retail-commercial standards (allowing up to 45 feet in height) or downtown-commercial standards (allowing up to 75 feet).
The Planning Commission also would have the authority to review specific projects for approval and apply General Plan guidelines that include overall policies on building heights (such as "downtown development nearby publicly owned gathering places shall respect views of the hills").
The upper Monterey area is considered part of the downtown core of the city's Land Use and Circulation Element, which guides the city on how land-use decisions can be made.
Over the past several weeks, the Planning Commission has been working to formulate zoning update recommendations, poring over a number of regulatory issues such as density, heights, parking, climate action, and views.