Development geared to students adds needed housing, SLO council says, rejecting appeal

A rendering of the four-story building proposed for 790 Foothill Blvd. in San Luis Obispo.
A rendering of the four-story building proposed for 790 Foothill Blvd. in San Luis Obispo. SanLuisObispo

A controversial four-story mixed-use housing and commercial project in the Foothill area near Cal Poly was approved by the San Luis Obispo City Council after an extensive appeal by two residents.

Public comment about the development at at 790 E. Foothill Boulevard targeted at college students was mixed at Tuesday’s meeting, but most opposed the third new project of its kind in the area from El Segundo-based developer Loren Reihl.

Reihl’s other projects nearby are at 71 Palomar Ave. and 22 Chorro St.

The new development — which would result in the demolition of the building that houses Black Horse Coffee as well as a vacant former McDonald’s on the thoroughfare leading to Cal Poly — envisions 78 units, including 12 restricted for very-low income households, and 6,800 square feet of ground-floor commercial space.

Reihl said it will provide much-needed housing and he also agreed to voluntarily spend $150,000 on public improvements such as bike and traffic safety infrastructure to offer an “olive branch” to critics.

“We looked at the rules and tried to design a project within the (city planning) rules,” Reihl said. “We didn’t look at it the other way around and try to shoehorn the project into the rules.”

SLO residents James Lopes and Odile Ayral appealed the project on nine points. Among those were:

▪ The project blocks views of Bishop Peak and San Luis Mountain;

▪ it fails to provide adequate parking;

▪ incentive guidelines allowing the buildings to occupy 90 percent of the lot (versus the city standard 75 percent in that location) and 43-foot height, above the standard height of 35 feet, were inconsistently applied;

an environmental impact review should have been required to assess traffic and other impacts.

“Staff got it wrong,” Lopes told the City Council in his presentation during the hearing. “The project as it’s designed is not consistent with General Plan policies. We ask that you continue this project for a California Environmental Quality Act review.”

But after a response by city staff on each one of the points, determining the proposal was consistent, the council voted unanimously to deny the appeal.

Staff members wrote that developments like this one, that serve identified infill needs, have “the potential to impact the existing visual character” but were considered “less than significant.”

Jake Hudson, the city’s transportation manager, said traffic analysis pulled from up-to-date studies showed volume has actually declined in that corridor in recent years. Future models, he said, were based on San Luis Obispo’s projections for growth citywide.

foothill rendering.jpg
A rendering of the proposed four-story, mixed-use development at 790 Foothill Blvd. in San Luis Obispo. City of SLO

Associate Planner Rachel Cohen said the plan’s 155 parking spaces were above what was required.

State law, including the Housing Accountability Act, can penalize cities with fines and attorney’s fees if a project isn’t approved that falls within the city’s planning guidelines. City staff determined the building incentives of density and height were valid.

And because the project is under 5 acres (the space consists of 1.33 acres), among other factors, the project is exempt from environmental review, city officials said.

“Whether we love this project or don’t like this project at all, it’s neither here not there,” Mayor Heidi Harmon said. “That’s because of the very housing laws coming down from California that will get even more stringent moving forward. To deny a project and be in violation of the law could result in penalties and attorney’s fees.”

Harmon suggested residents opposed to the project try to change laws at the state level.

Residents also fear the project will cram more students into rooms than should be allowed.

Reihl’s completed 22 Chorro Street project includes sliding partitions that act as a form of separation in bedrooms, which he said is a valid way to offer privacy.

Residents have decried the 22 Chorro site, called “The Academy at SLO,” as greedy for charging between $1,290 and $1,435 per month to share a partitioned room, noting that it currently has a number of vacancies.

Reihl said students who have toured the complex say they like it because “it’s clean” and believes the partitions add welcome privacy.

Reihl said it’s “more than half full” of tenants; because it opened around the start of school in 2018, many students had already lined up their housing (he expects vacancies to fill up at the start of next school year).

Those in favor the new 790 E. Foothill project said they believe students, young and low-income people in need of housing deserve more options.

“I don’t know when it becomes okay to discriminate against students,” Grant Robbins said in public comment. “They are a part of our community. They provide economic growth. They deserve safe housing that isn’t a converted garage sleeping next to a water heater.”

Councilwoman Andy Pease said she would have preferred a scaled down project, in line with 75 percent lot coverage, but she still supported it as proposed based on staff analysis.

Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson said the project is appropriate and welcome because the city has an obligation to meet its housing goals.

“This is the perfect place for it, along a transportation corridor only minutes from Cal Poly where a large number of people who want to live here are going to be working and going to school,” Christianson said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.