The brothers of Sigma Pi were setting up a purple and white pop-up tent with cases of water underneath when a group of Cal Poly personnel, San Luis Obispo city officials and local residents gathered on Longview Lane near the tennis courts at 10 p.m. Thursday.
As clusters of Cal Poly students accepted small bottles of water, the group of about 20 people walked down Hathway Avenue, sidestepping trash cans, a few clutching flashlights to avoid tripping in the dark.
“Who left their trash cans out?” Councilman John Ashbaugh commented.
The gathering, hosted by Cal Poly, was intended to bring local officials, residents and others concerned about neighborhood issues together.
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For about an hour this not-very-inconspicuous group — which included University Police Chief George Hughes and San Luis Obispo police Capt. Chris Staley — walked a loop on some of the streets near Cal Poly to get a feel for the nightlife and share concerns.
Fall classes start Monday, and the university expected more than 5,000 incoming freshmen and transfer students to participate in this year’s Week of Welcome program, which ended Saturday.
“Next weekend is probably one of our busiest weekends after the first week of school,” Staley said as he walked. “We will have everyone we have available. And Halloween is on a Saturday night this year — that will make for an interesting weekend as well.”
Improving “neighborhood wellness” in areas around Cal Poly — including addressing problems with noise, parking and large parties — has been an ongoing objective for the city, but some longtime residents say that situation has not improved and even worsened as more homes have become student rentals.
The problem peaked last March, when about 3,000 people flocked to Hathway Avenue to celebrate “St. Fratty’s Day.” At 6:20 a.m. March 7, a garage rooftop holding about 50 students caved in, injuring at least eight people.
“After the roof collapse, what really has happened?” nearby resident Jeff Eidelman asked Thursday. “What’s going to change?”
In May, the San Luis Obispo City Council heard recommendations from a “civility working group” of Cal Poly and Cuesta College administrators, city staffers, residents and students who have been brainstorming ways to improve the town-gown relationship.
While their report contains numerous ideas — from additional enforcement measures to ways to foster positive relationships — the effort is also about culture change, Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly’s vice president for student affairs, said at the time.
“And culture change is something that takes time,” he told the council.
For a few minutes late Thursday, all was quiet as the group walked up Kentucky Street. But at the corner of Kentucky and Bond streets, a pickup suddenly raced by and someone lobbed two water balloons out the window.
One caught San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Garret Olson in the back of the head; he later joked that he jumped in front of City Manager Katie Lichtig to prevent the water balloon from hitting her.
The group seemed momentarily stunned. Hughes quickly called in the incident. During the summer, the City Council approved an agreement with Cal Poly to allow university police to issue citations for city violations within a one-mile radius of campus.
Hughes said the university department stepped up its neighborhood patrols last year. On certain nights, “there will be more of my police officers off campus than on campus because that’s where the activity is now,” Hughes said.
“We’re being more proactive, but there needs to be a culture change from students themselves,” Hughes added.
The group filed down Bond Street to Hathway Avenue, and the number of students and noise increased. A few University Police cars were seen patrolling the area as well.
Young men and women, in groups of eight to 10, walked down the sidewalks or in the street, greeting one another, yelling, high-fiving, most heading somewhere with a sense of purpose.
Some young people were walking toward a backyard near where the roof collapse happened, and loud music could be heard. But it was quickly turned down as the group of older adults paused out front.
“It’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t realize how noise travels,” resident Donna Nash said.
Over the years, she’s seen more cars and more students added to the college, and the related neighborhood issues — more noise, specifically screaming — has increased. “When the older kids get here, there are a lot of parties, and we find the beer bottles in our bushes and the red cups,” she said.
‘High noise levels’
In just the first 15 days of this month, 102 noise complaints for parties citywide have been made to San Luis Obispo police, but that number could change once the calls are audited, Neighborhood Outreach Manager Christine Wallace said.
During that time period, 34 official warnings and 11 citations were issued.
In August, police took 153 noise complaints for parties citywide, and issued 38 warnings and 14 citations.
The term hasn’t yet started, but already students have “besieged our road with high noise levels,” Genevieve Czech, who lives near Highland Drive west of campus, wrote in an email to Humphrey and city officials earlier this month. Of the 30 homes on her block, 13 are rentals with 11 housing students.
One house hosted parties three weekends in a row and police were called a few times. The tenants tried to stop the parties early, Czech said, but the young people made lots of noise as they left.
“They could be called unruly gatherings,” she said. “There were lots and lots of youth. And clutches of six or eight of them would go down the road very loud and rather drunk.”
She made a point of talking to her young neighbors, and didn’t have any party related problems Sept. 12-13. But she wondered if that had more to do with the current safety enhancement zone — it started Sept. 11 and ends at 7 a.m. Sept. 28 — which doubles certain fines during holidays or weeks synonymous with loud parties and alcohol.
Safety a priority
The focus of Thursday’s walk was on neighborhood wellness issues, but city and Cal Poly officials said Friday they are very much committed to student safety as well.
Just an hour and a half after the walk wrapped up Thursday night, two men — a Cal Poly and a Cuesta College student — were stabbed while walking along Foothill Boulevard near the entrance to Mustang Village. Police believe one of the two suspects was denied entrance to a private gathering at a fraternity about a half hour before.
Last Wednesday, a 21-year-old student told police she was walking in the neighborhood south of campus when a man jumped out from some bushes, grabbed her, and pinned her to the ground. She told police she was able to break free from the man and strike him several times in the face.
And on Sept. 11, police said a 20-year-old San Luis Obispo woman was allegedly attacked by 25-year-old Derrick Moore of Atascadero, who confronted her as she was leaving her apartment in the 1000 block of Foothill Boulevard.
Moore was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and remained in San Luis Obispo County Jail on Friday.
“To have had three unique serious crimes is not typical even at the start of the school year,” Staley said Friday. “We don’t generally see the types of things we’re seeing like that.”
He said police are constantly evaluating where to put resources. Over the past few years, more officers have started working during WOW, he said. About six or seven officers would normally patrol on Thursday and Friday nights, but last Thursday that increased to nine or 10, Staley said.
“For next weekend, and we consider that max deployment, we’ll have upwards of 13 to 14 people working Friday and Saturday nights because that first weekend of school is traditionally the busiest.”
He urged students to be aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious activity to police.
Hughes said that expanding the university police’s neighborhood patrols was done to support city police efforts improve community wellness, which includes student safety.
“Increased patrols and a uniformed presence, along with the enforcement of public disorder crimes and being vigilant and active in the community will hopefully deter crime in the neighborhoods,” he said.
Cal Poly also urges its students and employees to use common sense, be aware of their surroundings, and avoid risky situations such as walking alone at night or through isolated areas, spokesman Matt Lazier said.
Other tips include keeping a cell phone close, program 911 or University Police contact numbers into it, and never hesitate to call 911 if you are in trouble yourself or see or hear someone else who might be in trouble.
As the walk ended about 11 p.m. Thursday, the group gathered to talk about what they had seen. Stephanie F. Teaford, community liaison for Cal Poly, said she was surprised by the narrow, damaged or non-existent sidewalks in some places, prompting students to walk in the street.
“Please tell Cal Poly to keep our neighborhoods in mind,” Eidelman asked her.
Some areas were also not well lit, and Staley said he might bring up the issue with the city’s community development department.
As the group dispersed, the Sigma Pi Fraternity continued to distribute bottled water. They planned to stay out until 1 a.m., with 700 bottles total to give out.
It was the second year in a row that the members gathered to hand out water during WOW week to a steady stream of students walking off campus in an effort to “help keep everyone safe,” social chair Cole Grigsby said.
He said the fraternity has invited guests, including Wallace, to talk to them about ways to be a good neighbor.
“We’ve always preached about how we have to talk to our neighbors and have a good relationship with them,” fundraising chair Kevin Lobb said. “It’s just communication.”
NOISE-RELATED CALLS, WARNINGS AND CITATIONS IN SAN LUIS OBISPO
Here’s a comparison of the number of noise-related calls to San Luis Obispo police in August and September of 2014 and so far this year. This month’s noise call number may change after an audit at the end of the month, but the number of warnings and citations will remain the same.
|Aug. 2014||Sept. 2014||Aug. 2015||Sept. 1-15, 2015|
|Noise party calls||150||269||153||102|
|DAC warnings issued||43||79||38||34|
“DAC” stands for “disturbance advisement card,” the formal warning that puts a property on the “no warning” list. That means future noise complaints that are founded will result in a citation.
The San Luis Obispo Police Department says there’s normally an uptick in noise-related calls at the beginning of the school year, but officers are proactively patrolling the neighborhoods around campus and residents should report any problems to San Luis Obispo police.
SOURCE: San Luis Obispo Police Department