SLO apartment project may draw students, traffic, neighbors worry

For years, residents along a quiet stretch of Luneta Drive in northwestern San Luis Obispo, a few blocks south of Foothill Boulevard, have enjoyed their peaceful street, which was blocked off to through traffic in the early 1990s.

Years ago, a fraternity occupying an old home at 71 Palomar Ave. used to throw huge parties, residents said. But that ended when the group was suspended from campus after an alcohol-related incident in 1997.

Now they’re concerned that a developer’s plan for that 1.3-acre property would drastically change their neighborhood. An El Segundo-based developer has proposed moving the historical 1895 Sandford House to the property, building four apartment buildings, and opening and widening Luneta Drive.

Neighbors say the project would draw dozens of student residents and significantly increase traffic.

“By having intense development, it destroys the character of the neighborhood,” resident Bob Mourenza said. “It doesn’t work for us.”

The developer has proposed building six studios, one one-bedroom and 34 two-bedroom apartments — and to reuse the Sandford House as a leasing office with amenities for residents, such as fitness or study rooms.

But those plans will change based on feedback given Monday by the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee, where members considered whether the plan to build apartments would be compatible with the historical home, which was placed on San Luis Obispo’s master list of historic resources in 1983.

They directed the developer to reduce the scale and massing of the apartments, re-evaluate the architectural details to highlight the historical elements of the Sandford House and increase the distance between the house and the new development, San Luis Obispo associate planner Rachel Cohen said.

Committee members also said they didn’t want the Sandford House, which would be shifted about 40 feet southeast of its current location, moved that far.

Project architect Thom Jess, a representative for developer LR Development Group LLC, said he’s working with the company to make changes, including probably decreasing the number of units. Once the project returns to the CHC, it would go to the Architectural Review Commission, which would be the final approval needed unless the project is appealed to the City Council.

“(The CHC) said it overwhelmed — that was the term they used — that it overwhelmed the house in massing and scale, so we have to do less massing and less scale,” said Jess, principal architect and founding partner at San Luis Obispo-based Arris Studio Architects. The details are still to be determined, he said.

The property is zoned for high-density housing but is also located across Luneta Drive from a neighborhood of single-family homes. Jess said the developer is trying to be sensitive to that jump from single-family to high-density housing by proposing to build the apartments closer to Valencia Apartments off Ramona Avenue.

He added that additional housing is sorely needed in San Luis Obispo.

“There’s a tremendous housing shortage,” he said. “What we’re proposing helps solve that — it provides housing that’s safe, modern, that’s code compliant. Reducing the number of units appeases the neighbors but does nothing to reduce the housing shortage in the community.”

But some neighbors said the 41 units could easily draw more than 120 new residents, if many of the two-bedroom units were each rented by four college students. The neighbors also oppose opening and widening Luneta Drive to two-way traffic.

“The density is clearly an issue, and we’ve got concerns about adequate parking and traffic,” resident Peter Crough said. “If you look at the street, it’s a wonderful walking street. To widen it would pull a lot of traffic off Foothill (Boulevard). It would not be the community it was when we moved in.”

Jess said the developer designed the project so the street could remain closed, and would be willing to dedicate the land to the city to widen it at a later date.

But Jake Hudson, the city’s transportation operations supervisor, said Luneta Drive has been intended as a wider street since a much larger parcel was subdivided in the 1970s.

This development now triggers a requirement for the developer to complete and pay for street improvements that could include medians or other “traffic calming” measures. Luneta Drive is shown on a map in the city’s general plan as a complete local residential street able to handle up to 1,500 average daily vehicle trips.

“The most unfortunate thing about this is that the can got kicked down the road for so long that people have gotten used to the way things are now,” Hudson said.

Opening the street would take some pressure off Ramona Avenue, which now has about 4,000 average daily trips (1,000 more than intended), but residents are worried that Luneta Drive would be used as a shortcut for people driving from Foothill Boulevard to Broad Street.

Luneta Drive resident Al Lipper created an online petition at www.saveluneta.org, which states that opening the street would increase noise and traffic accidents, and decrease home values.

“If you have kids, bike ride, have a pet, ride a skateboard or otherwise appreciate a quiet street, imagine living on a busy street and how dangerous it will become for you and the people or pets you care about,” the petition said.