Editorial: Garden Street Terrace needs one more revision

The revamped Garden Street Terrace project is an infinitely better fit for downtown San Luis Obispo than the behemoth that was first proposed.

It’s been scaled back from six stories to three, yet the downsized project will still bring much-needed hotel rooms and housing units to the area, as well as a grocery store and other commercial businesses.

We especially like the fact that developer Hamish Marshall and his team of architects are preserving historic buildings that are worth saving, while replacing nondescript ones that add nothing to the ambiance of downtown.

In short, we strongly support the Garden Street Terrace project in concept. But we share concerns voiced by others that the exterior design of some of the new construction is out of character for the downtown — too stark, too dark, too modern, too boxy.

For that reason, we urge the City Council to hold off on giving the project a final blessing when it considers the Garden Street Terrace design next month. We believe one final round of revision and review is needed to ensure the building will complement its neighbors.

To be clear, we aren’t advocating for a downtown that looks like a miniature Santa Barbara with its sea of white stucco walls and red tile roofs. Our downtown is more diverse and, we believe, more architecturally interesting.

While we aren’t looking for sameness, there should be compatibility; indeed, the city’s own policies demand that:

“New development should not sharply contrast with, significantly block public views of, or visually detract from, the historic architectural character of historically designated structures located adjacent to the property to be developed.”

We believe valid questions have been raised about whether the contrasting color scheme — gray brick and off-white stucco — the sharp contours of the buildings and the lack of ornamentation meet city standards for compatibility.

In response to concerns, the applicants have made some revisions, including using lighter, warmer shades of gray instead of the dark charcoal bricks first chosen for the exterior.

That’s an improvement, but we believe the mass of gray may still be too much, especially at the corner of the Broad and Marsh.

As many have pointed out, that is a gateway to the city, and it should give visitors a sense of place. As currently designed, this portion of the project looks more like an ultramodern gray box you could see in any modern city — not something unique to San Luis Obispo.

One more note about color: There have been some strenuous objections to gray. In a recent viewpoint in The Tribune, architect Sandra Davis Lakeman described it as “morbid, morose, uninviting, repelling” and opposed its selection for Garden Street Terrace.

We agree that a warmer color would be more in keeping with other buildings in the downtown, but with the right design, we believe some gray would work.

Additional design elements — perhaps more awnings, cornices at the roofline, recessed windows, decorative arches, horizontal moldings — would add interest and help break up the masses of gray.

Again, we strongly support this project in principle, but we believe the design is too big a departure from other buildings in the downtown core. Further revisions are needed — be it a change in color and building materials and/or the addition of design elements — to make the project more compatible with its surroundings.

Garden Street Terrace will be a landmark in the city for decades to come. This is one chance to get it right, and we urge the City Council to make good use of it by directing staff and applicants to come back with alternatives that will be more in keeping with the historic downtown.