The community divide over appropriate building height and city character in San Luis Obispo was highlighted again in public comment at a City Council meeting, this time over a proposed six-story, mixed-use structure in the heart of downtown.
A 75-foot-tall building in the heart of downtown SLO would have 50 housing units averaging about 400 square feet, as well as 30,000 square feet of office and commercial space, according to a project application submitted by the property owner, Jamestown, the Atlanta-based real estate investment and management company that owns the property.
Three members of the City Council on Tuesday conducted a preliminary discussion on the project application envisioned for the corner of Marsh and Chorro streets.
Two council members, Andy Pease and Aaron Gomez, recused themselves because of potential conflicts of interest related to the proposal. Pease said she has worked closely with the project architect, Ten Over Studio. And Gomez’s business is within 500 feet of the site at 1144 Chorro St.
Members of the public either applauded its vision for workforce housing and compatibility with downtown vibrancy, or opposed it by calling it a future eyesore that doesn’t match the character of downtown.
Residents weigh in on building height and character
“The SLO life is available to fewer and fewer people in our area,” said Krista Jeffries, a Grover Beach resident. “This type of project will let more people live the SLO life. It has housing set aside for the same people who are currently commuting from outside the city, driving up carbon emissions and spending $4 per gallon gas.”
But 25-year SLO resident Rebecca Simmons said the project is another example of how the city is losing its charm.
“When I got here, SLO was a charming place; it was a town,” Simmons said. “I don’t know what’s happening to it. It’s becoming a city. I don’t think we have the infrastructure to support these kinds of projects... I haven’t spoken to one person who’s in favor of high rises.”
Simmons said she also questions the need for more retail spaces, given commercial vacancies already exist in the downtown.
The project still must go through a planning process that includes advisory body and City Council review before a final determination of approval. Council members gave direction for it to move forward with expedited planning review.
Small housing spaces proposed for top three floors
The project that was formerly approved for a bowling alley and entertainment center before the plan was abandoned due to a contentious relationship between Jamestown and the development company Discovery SLO, led by businessman Jeremy Pemberton.
The current proposal calls for:
▪ A first level of three retail suites, totaling about 4,800 square feet with accommodations for restaurant use, a residential lobby, commercial office lobby, and a small parking facility with handicapped parking, delivery/drop off spaces.
▪ Second- and third-floor offices totaling about 25,000 square feet.
▪ The fourth, fifth and sixth floors would provide residential apartments with 25 percent affordable units in the “moderate” range, totaling 50 units, including studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom spaces.
The price range for deed-restricted, affordable units in the moderate income range is $1,276 per month for a studio, $1,458 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,641 for two-bedroom units. Home sizes range from about 320 square feet to 620 square feet.
No projected pricing on the planned market-rate homes has been set by Jamestown, said Jim Duffy, the project architect of Ten Over Studio.
Ten Over Studio wrote in its plan “the remaining units have been sized to be affordable by design, in that all but three of the units are less than 600 square feet.”
The term “affordable by design” is commonly used to describe planned housing that will be less expensive on the open market by nature of its smaller size, though prices generally are not pre-determined.
The project’s residential quarters would include some communal spaces, as well, including larger kitchens for catering to larger gatherings, lounges and a media room. The project also has fourth-story rooftop terraces.
“I think we have a great opportunity here to address a lot of the city’s major goals,” Duffy said. “Speaking to climate action, this is a project that really checks all the boxes.”
Council members debate size of housing spaces
Council member Erica Stewart questioned whether the project’s home sizes are too small for comfortable living.
“If two people are living in a 340-square-foot space, that’s too small,” Stewart said.
Mayor Heidi Harmon said the smaller housing sizes would allow for “bigger lives” and that she is supportive of sizes of homes around 350 square feet.
Harmon has championed smaller homes that don’t require people to use cars to get to work or shopping centers to promote climate action.
“There’s always somebody for every place,” Council member Carlyn Christianson said. “Let’s keep an open-mindedness as to the size and who might want to live there.”
Christianson said building up in the downtown also protects the city’s outskirts from development, part of the city’s General Plan.
Duffy said the project will allow people to live close to where they work in the downtown, and provide efficiency with space by including smaller units.
Three community benefits required to build 75 feet
To build up to 75 feet, the project is required to have three community benefits — such as providing 25 percent affordable and worforce housing, pedestrian amenities, alternative transportation investment, historic preservation of a community site, a common garbage facility and others.
Without those three additional elements, the city’s height requirement is 50 feet.
The project proposes 25 percent affordable housing; preserving pedestrian amenities and the Downtown Centre as a public plaza; and providing permanent preservation of a building offsite in the downtown or in the Chinatown district.
Duffy acknowledged that controversial community issues regarding the project include views of hills, density, height, shadows and parking.
“We feel this project really does take care of those challenges,” Duffy said.
The project proposed seven parking spaces, but Duffy said that it’s close to public transportation systems, adjacent to a parking structure and will pay in-lieu fees toward future parking garage costs in the downtown.
Duffy also said the design, after further advisory body input, has been set back from the street and articulated with a design that allows for a rooftop terrace on the fourth floor and trees along the street.