Plans for four two-story homes that would be built in a residential neighborhood near Cal Poly have been sent back for a redesign after neighbors objected that their size would draw more student renters to the area.
A divided San Luis Obispo City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to uphold an appeal filed against the project on Grand Avenue, with the majority of council members agreeing that the four-bedroom, two-story houses were out of character with the many older single-level homes in the area.
“I don’t believe it is compatible with the neighborhood,” said Mayor Jan Marx, who along with councilmen Dan Carpenter and Dan Rivoire voted to uphold the appeal filed by two residents. “I think the design has a high potential for conversion, and the massing is just too big for the neighborhood. It should be one story.”
They voted to send the project back to the city’s Architectural Review Commission — which approved the design April 6 — with direction to reduce the homes to a single story.
But the two dissenting council members, Carlyn Christianson and John Ashbaugh, argued the project met the city’s design guidelines, provides desperately needed infill housing and is not an outlier in the neighborhood. The homes are proposed for 323 and 353 Grand Ave., on the west side of the street between McCollum and Fredericks streets.
“I think with a growing family, a lot of people would like to have a home like this,” Ashbaugh said.
Underlying Tuesday’s debate was the concern, from local residents and a few council members, that the homes would become student rentals and exacerbate already existing problems in the Monterey Heights and Alta Vista neighborhoods around Cal Poly.
Permanent residents have long complained about the noise, parties, parking and other problems caused by their student neighborhoods, with the issue most recently thrust into the public view after a rooftop holding more than 50 students collapsed during a “St. Fratty’s Day” party in March.
“I can’t imagine any single families who would want to live in that environment,” Councilman Dan Carpenter said. “What was the red flag for me was when I looked at the dens and offices downstairs ... and there were full baths next to them. That screams to me — conversion.”
John Belsher, general counsel for San Luis Obispo-based PB Companies, said the project met city regulations for the parcels and the developer was not asking for any exceptions to city zoning ordinances.
“Your General Plan directs builders to infill projects,” he told the council. “We found a half-acre project which gives us enough room to do some things we’re trying to do in our new home design.”
Belsher could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In August 2013, the Planning Commission approved a request to subdivide two lots into four substandard parcels — lots that are smaller than the city’s zoning ordinance allows. No appeal was filed to that decision.
The Architectural Review Commission first considered the project in January and directed PB Companies to reduce the size and scale of the homes, which now range from 1,963 to 2,379 square feet.
An appeal was filed by San Luis Obispo residents Linda White and Karen Adler after the Architectural Review Commission's approval in April.
“We have no objection to small lots,” White said. “We do object to oversized houses being built on substandard lots.”
Both sides used examples of homes in the area to support their contention that the project was a good fit — or a terrible misstep — for the neighborhood.
“There are 18 two-story houses within three lots of this project,” Belsher said. “I think it would be inconsistent to build a one-story house at this location.”
But White and other opponents argued that Belsher was incorrectly using homes on nearby Leroy Court to support the plan. Seven houses on an acre gained council approval in 2001 with the belief that the spacious homes would be snapped up by families for just north of $400,000.
The homes sold for much more and became student rentals.
“When I look back at all the votes I’ve taken in 11 years, the one I regret the most was the one where I voted on that,” Marx said. “We were assured that these would be workforce housing and family homes.”
The council majority worried the PB Companies development could set a precedent for future developers, who might try to buy lots, subdivide them and them cram in high-density homes. There’s no limit on the number of bedrooms in single-family neighborhoods — a point Marx said she thinks the council ought to address.
But Christianson said she worried the decision would set an opposing dangerous precedent: “We have a project that meets all our ordinances, and we have a strong rental ordinance that we passed to prevent conversions. And now we’re setting up a situation where a developer can come forward with a project that matches the homes within yards of it and we’re not going to support it.”
“I gotta tell you guys,” she added. “A two-story house to me is not in and of itself a disaster.”