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Most agree, Chinatown looks great

When all was said and done, the often controversial Chinatown Project of yesteryear became the relatively popular Chinatown Project of today when its design passed the San Luis Obispo City Council with little negative comment last week.

Even some of its former opponents told the council and the Copeland Properties representatives that they either completely or generally approved of its final incarnation.

“Through the spirit of this town, we altered the original plan and I like the plan now,” said Joseph Abrahams, who had been an outspoken critic of the project as a member of Save Our Downtown when it was proposed as much taller and larger.

Gone are plans to tear down two historic buildings at Chorro and Monterey streets. New plans call for trying to restore them to at least the look and size of what they were at the beginning of the 20th century.

Gone are plans for a behemoth project reaching 75 feet tall, even on Palm Street, making it look even taller from Monterey Street 22 feet below. New plans call for it to be shorter, at a maximum of 50 feet, and less bulky.

Some things have remained, particularly the plan to create a retail, hotel and residential project that takes up three-quarters of the block between Chorro, Palm, Morro and Monterey streets.

That will include 78 rooms in the hotel at Palm and Morro, 16 condominiums spread along Monterey, 50,000 square feet of retail space and a 74-space parking lot.

Mark Rawson, the Chinatown Project’s architect, said if all goes as planned, construction will begin on the historic buildings located at Chorro and Monterey possibly as early as mid-2010.

The corner will have retail shops on the lower levels and residences on the upper level.

Exception in economy

City Manager Ken Hampian said it is unheard of in the current economic climate for any city the size of San Luis Obispo to be boasting a redevelopment project on such a massive scale.

Copeland Properties has been pursuing the project since it first approached the city about a three-stage redevelopment of a significant part of downtown more than a decade ago.

The first stage involved Court Street, the shopping center along Osos between Monterey and Higuera streets that was completed in June 2005, and the Copeland-built city parking lot and offices at 919 Palm St., completed in June 2006.

Chinatown, however, is planned for some of the most historically sensitive land in San Luis Obispo.

Along Palm Street is the historic Chinatown District, where one of the nation’s largest Chinatowns outside San Francisco existed in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. The project also includes the Downtown Historical District along Monterey Street. Archaeological work necessary on the site is expected to produce many artifacts.

Process refines projects

City officials want to see the process as an example of all that is right with San Luis Obispo’s often stifling application process.

They say it is an example of how community input — even in the form of angry feedback — and city officials and a developer who listen can make a better project.

“We are SLO Town, that’s for sure,” said Mayor Dave Romero when talking of the multiyear application process. “We are very thorough. The projects we get are very good projects in the end.

“I think they did a remarkable job of meeting all the concerns of the citizenry,” Romero said of the Copelands.

Different councils have been in favor of the project throughout much of the past decade. It is part of a long-term city plan to do away with what are considered unsightly surface-area parking lots and turn them into development that can produce sales taxes, property taxes and, in this case, hotel taxes.

In July 2008, the council voted 3-2 to support one of the more controversial decisions to move the project along.

It agreed to a $3.7 million deal to sell 1.3 acres of land containing 155 surface parking spaces and a city building, land crucial to the larger development. The $3.7 million included the sale price and fees for replacing lost parking.

The property had received a market value appraisal of $8.8 million, but the city’s own consultant said that with the additional conditions the city was placing on the project, it was really worth far less.

The Copelands will also have to compensate the city for 33 parking spaces the project does not provide for retail shopping. Such in-lieu fees are designed to support the construction of parking garages, with the next one proposed at Nipomo and Palm streets.

Rawson said people should be pleased with the project that will have 31 percent of its space dedicated to walkways, courtyards and paseos.

The council did make one concession: It originally wanted the public to have access to the historic Sauer Bakery oven, but as designed, Rawson argued that it would be in the back of a retail store and a new tenant might not want tours in a storeroom.

The council agreed that while the oven had to be restored and maintained, public access would no longer be a requirement.

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