A steady stream of residents lined up to lambast a four-story, mixed-use development near Cal Poly at Wednesday night’s San Luis Obispo Planning Commission meeting.
About 25 residents spoke out against the proposal at 790 Foothill Blvd., with one voicing support, as planners expressed their own concerns. In the end, the proposal got the OK on a 5-1 vote.
Commissioners said their hands were tied by state and local laws that restrict their power, approving a use permit for the application for 78 rental units, commercial space and 155 parking spaces on a 1.33-acre site. Chuck Stevenson dissented.
“We don’t make the rules, the City Council does,” said Commission Chair John Fowler. “We’re here to make sure the project is consistent with the General Plan, and with the zoning. ... Personally, would I want to see this building? I wouldn’t. But this is our purview.”
Residents claimed in their comments that the development will block views of mountains, congest roads, burden parking and serve only students, not working people.
Commissioners fear parking at the complex will spill into neighborhoods and traffic could back up.
A mechanical parking lift and 6,800 feet of commercial space are envisioned, as well. Commissioners expressed concerns about the possibility of more than 300 students living there, and how many cars they’d have.
“I don’t agree with the overall size of this project,” Stevenson said. “I think it’s overbuilt.”
Commissioner Mike Wulkan called the project “seriously under-parked,” adding that it could bring health and safety issues with traffic circulation.
But multiple commissioners lamented they weren’t able to demand plan changes based on the state’s Housing Accountability Act (strengthened by an amendment in 2017 to encourage new housing statewide).
That state law stipulates that development proposals that meet the community’s zoning and general-plan criteria can’t be denied at the local level unless specific health and safety impacts or significant environmental impacts are identified.
The City Council will still need to review the proposal for considerations of its 43-foot height and 90 percent lot coverage building footprint, both exceeding city standards. Those incentives can be allowed because the project offers 12 studio apartments that would restrict rent prices for low-income people, who can earn salaries of up to about $29,000 per year.
The developer — Loren Riehl, of LR Real Estate Investment Group — said the city’s policies call for higher density and mixed use with height concessions in that area.
“We go through the laws that direct us to what we can do with the site,” Riehl. “Those laws led us to (the project submitted).”
He believes the housing will relieve demands elsewhere in the city. Commissioner Hemalata Dandekar, a Cal Poly professor, said students also don’t want to live on campus in their third and fourth years and need places to live in the city.
A BlackHorse Espresso and Bakery shop is located at the site now, and its owner Tom Brown said earlier this week that he will fight to maintain his lease, which runs through 2020 with an option to extend to 2023.
Riehl is in the process of buying the parcel, he said, and will explore legal options to address the BlackHorse lease once the property sale closes.
Commissioners conditioned their approval with limits of up to four tenants in two-bedroom units and up to two tenants in one bedrooms, as well as a trip-reduction plan that requires Riehl to encourage and monitor tenants’ uses of alternative forms of transportation, such as bicycles and the bus.
Many public speakers also decried another four-story building plan across the street from Riehl’s incoming four-story structure at 22 Chorro St., where 27 units are set to open in September with monthly rents between $1,295 and $1,425 per bed.
“The anger is intense,” said Crissa Hewitt. “People are feeling really bereft of the sense that anybody is listening.”