Judge's decision on Cal Poly dormitory project is expected soon

Here's a rendering of the proposed student housing project at Cal Poly.
Here's a rendering of the proposed student housing project at Cal Poly. Courtesy photo

A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge is expected to render a decision in a couple of weeks on whether Cal Poly’s large dormitory project met proper environmental review guidelines.

Judge Martin J. Tangeman heard arguments Monday from lawyers representing a neighborhood alliance group and the California State University system in a civil litigation hearing over whether the university, through its planning process, adequately studied an alternate site upon which to build the project.

The project is slated for construction near the corner of campus at Grand Avenue and Slack Street. Tangeman’s ruling will determine whether Cal Poly will need to conduct further analysis of an alternate site on campus.

The project plan, approved by the CSU Board of Trustees last year, consists of seven four- to five-story towers situated around a central greenspace, as well as a parking structure and about 20,000 feet of space on three sides of the parking structure that could be used as offices, a community lounge, a coffee shop or a welcoming center.

The lawyer representing the Alliance of SLO Neighborhoods — a grassroots group of neighbors opposed to the project location close to the nearby community — argued that an alternate site wasn’t adequately explored under California Environmental Quality Act guidelines.

The university opted against a possible site where the H-12 and H-16 parking lots are located near the Beef Unit and Baggett Stadium, because of an estimated $25 million in additional costs.

Alliance lawyer Babak Naficy said the analysis of that site was not carefully considered, which cleared the way for the selection of the Grand Avenue location.

“There has to be a fair comparison or it falls short of CEQA guidelines,” Naficy said. “… All we have for the analysis at the environmentally superior site is a one-page document that doesn’t have a date, and doesn’t have an author named, and it’s not clear what the opinion is based on.”

Naficy said he didn’t believe the $25 million in additional costs were credible, based on estimates that accounted for the costs of constructing taller buildings in limited space or a new dining hall that the university says is necessary because of its distance from existing dining facilities.

CSU lawyer Diane Hanna countered that a list of criteria was sufficient to show that the planning process has met legal requirements — including a project objective to put freshmen housing close to where other freshmen units are located, as well as existing services.

Hanna said that case precedent supports the level of consideration given by Cal Poly to the H-12/H-16 site, which included the cost estimates on the square footage expense of building a new dining facility and a new bridge for emergency access.

Taller buildings would be more expensive in meeting code requirements and in material costs, Hanna has argued in court documents.

According to Hanna, Cal Poly’s director of facilities planning and capital projects, Joel Neel, conducted the cost analysis of the H-12/H-16 site.

“The job of the court isn’t to dive into the conclusions of experts,” Hanna said Monday in court.

And in her written opposition to the alliance’s argument, filed in March, Hanna stated, “This concern is not an environmental impact, but rather a social impact that in and of itself is outside the purview of CEQA.”

Throughout Monday’s hearing, Tangeman pressed the attorneys to provide legal case precedent that could shed light on the legality of the approach Cal Poly took in its planning — noting the CSU Board of Trustees had the authority to make the decision on the appropriateness of a site as long as environmental review steps were followed.

“I’m not allowed to say, ‘This is a better choice,’ ” Tangeman said. “I can’t say, ‘Come on, guys. This is a much better site to build on over here.’ ”

Linda White, alliance chair, said the group doesn’t oppose a new dorm — just the location.

“So many of us were professors or parents of Cal Poly students,” White said. “We feel ourselves a part of the university. We expect Cal Poly to build, but we expect something more compatible with the neighborhood.”

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