Letters to the Editor

SLO would be lucky to have an Isla Vista

An entrance to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
An entrance to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The thing I keep hearing from folks in San Luis Obispo is they fear their neighborhood is going to become an Isla Vista — the residential neighborhood next to UCSB that’s populated nearly 100 percent by students.

I went to UCSB and lived in Isla Vista and the funny thing is, you couldn’t engineer a better student housing plan than Isla Vista. That is because Isla Vista is truly an island.

Adjacent to the campus on one side (walking, skateboard or bike is the primary mode of transportation to classes) and bordered by ocean and vacant land on the other three sides, it affects no one but its own student residents. It lives its own little existence without impacting other neighborhoods or Santa Barbara residents. San Luis Obispo should be so lucky.

Contrast that with the way Cal Poly’s campus is situated up against many SLO neighborhoods. All of these neighborhoods are then also contiguous with other neighborhoods. So the “studentification” of San Luis Obispo’s neighborhoods is more like a cancer affecting the whole body, slowly metastasizing from one area to the next.

There is no clear border or single neighborhood that could be sacrificed as Isla Vista was to spare the greater community. So what we have now and have had for a number of years is an exodus of permanent residents from San Luis Obispo neighborhoods as the students move in, seeking out a student-free quality of life elsewhere. Unfortunately, my family is soon to be a part of this exodus. If not for students in our neighborhood, we would not be leaving San Luis Obispo.

Our block-long street was truly one of San Luis Obispo’s nicest streets to live and raise a family in years past. We were fortunate to spend 27 years here. It has nice homes and a wonderful micro-climate of little wind, it is late to get the fog and always seems to be sunny and warm. The kids were free to ride their bikes on the street unsupervised (there was no traffic at all, and there were lots of families).

Now, however, with the student rentals, the street is bumper-to-bumper cars parked on both sides with a lot of traffic (apparently every student needs to have his or her own vehicle in order to drive the half-mile to school, often many times a day). Nighttime noise and activity have destroyed the peace and, with it, our quality of life.

Cal Poly has, to its credit, initiated various educational programs aimed at students and has agreed to dialogue with the city addressing the problems their students create within San Luis Obispo. Neither effort really addresses the heart of the matter, though, and that is the ever-growing size of the university in relation to San Luis Obispo, and the lack of on-campus housing. Cuesta College also is to blame, having no dorms and with its first- and second-year college students some of the most immature around.

The problem of students in neighborhoods is primarily a lifestyle conflict of two groups of people in different stages of their lives. Even if students are not having a “party,” they still have a level of nighttime activity that is not compatible with a family neighborhood. Their comings and goings at all hours of the night with car doors slamming, yelling to each other, cellphone calls outside and other inconsiderate behavior disrupt the night and add up to lost sleep and unhappy permanent residents. And of course actual parties are even worse.

And although the city and neighborhood groups such as Residents for Quality Neighborhoods worked hard to get new ordinances passed for noise control and other neighborhood enhancements, lenient enforcement by the police has rendered them largely ineffectual in helping permanent residents.

San Luis Obispo should be so lucky to have an (isolated) Isla Vista. But we don’t and never will. What we have now are multiple micro-Isla Vistas and they are spreading throughout the city. Cal Poly even found a way to make matters worse and turn a positive into a negative by locating its proposed new freshman dorm on a campus border adjacent to a residential neighborhood! This is being done despite the strong objections of the residents and serious concerns of the city, and even in light of all the other acreage it has available. Where will it stop? How many neighborhoods is San Luis Obispo willing to sacrifice to feed the 800-pound gorilla in our midst?

There is now talk of a “Neighborhood Stabilization” program in a collaborative effort between the city and Cal Poly. Time will tell if such an effort can be put forward quickly and to what degree it is successful. Certainly the name sums up what is desperately needed and hopefully it will be more than just talk. However, given Cal Poly’s track record, including its recent heavy-handed and inflexible approach to the siting of the new freshman dorm, it is hard to be optimistic.

But wait, isn’t this the “happiest place in America”? Well, maybe for tourist-magazine writers sleeping in hotels, but not for the families with students in their neighborhoods. With only about 33 percent of San Luis Obispo’s housing units left as owner-occupied, something needs to be done soon. Otherwise there will be a continuing exodus of permanent residents, and that bodes poorly for the city as a whole.