Hot on the heels of the Justin Vineyards oak forest clear-cut, the city of San Luis Obispo is promoting an even more incredible chain-saw massacre at 71 Palomar Ave., a historic-estate-turned-fraternity-house-turned-hotly-contested-site for an inappropriate student apartment complex by an El Segundo developer.
A big difference, however, is the winery clear-cut was done without permits and San Luis Obispo County is pursuing legal remedies against perpetrators, whereas San Luis Obispo city itself is promoting the clear-cut of a healthy and amazing century-old, much-beloved urban forest.
The hilly Palomar site has 51 remarkable trees, some with 3-foot diameter trunks, that provide a beautiful ambiance for the Sandford House, a designated historic landmark, and for the adjacent single-family-home neighborhood. The trees create a local microclimate, in fact, that’s why many were planted. They also provide important songbird, owl and raptor habitats and are seen as a landmark skyline on the lower slopes of Cerro San Luis from many points in the city’s northern sector. The trees are huge and capture a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are beautiful and wonderful. But in the development-centric regime of City Manager Katie Lichtig, preserving beauty and wonder aren’t on the city’s agenda.
Rather than recognize this historic estate’s attributes and design a project to fit it, the developer proposes mundane Anyplace L.A. super-dense dormitory “apartments” that totally ignore the site’s unique qualities and that could be better sited on any flat piece of treeless land. City planning staff, rather than urge the developer toward more site-sensitive design, align themselves with the developer’s indifference to the site and insistence on destroying it.
The city has done about everything it can to obstruct and frustrate residents who’d like this urban forest saved and the historic site treated with kindness.
One thing the city can do to protect fine old trees is designate them “heritage trees.” A group of us looked into that and found heritage designation by the City Council seemed to require owner cooperation, but nothing stands in the way of asking the city’s Tree Committee to study the trees to see whether, in their opinion, they might qualify as heritage trees. (We have since found the city can require heritage designation as a condition of development, but for mysterious reasons, it refuses to do that for Palomar.)
So we approached members of the Tree Committee in May. They agreed to visit the trees and discuss their findings at their June meeting. Discussion seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing — get the facts and talk about them.
But something odd happened: Study of the Palomar trees — which the committee had placed on its June 27 agenda — disappeared from that agenda, removed by staff.
The move was so brazen that one sympathetic public official opined, “It looks like … staff is placing a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of the developer.”
What’s more, when we asked why this happened, city staff stonewalled us.
On June 27, instead of the Tree Committee having a discussion about the Palomar trees’ heritage potential, the city held a development approval hearing before the Cultural Heritage Committee. Several CHC members thought it odd they were reviewing the project prior to the study of the trees’ heritage value. We agreed. City staff nonetheless railroaded approval with four hours of arm-twisting to shift a majority vote against to a bare majority vote for the project.
On July 18, still without Tree Committee deliberations, comes final development approval by the Architectural Review Commission. City staff has made clear to us that the Tree Committee will never discuss the heritage potential of the Palomar trees. Instead, the Architectural Review Commission, made up of nontree-experts, will somehow divine whether it’s OK for the developer to remove up to 49 of the 51 trees.
This has logical decision-making backwards.
Why is city staff railroading approval of this destructive project before the Tree Committee has an opportunity to study the trees? It’s a mystery no one will explain. What is certain is the city of San Luis Obispo staff has an anti-environmental, pro-development agenda that will produce a tree-slaughter outrage as great as what greedy vine growers did to the Justin Vineyards oak forest.
This is not right, and it needs to be fixed by the City Council.
Richard Schmidt is an architect who recently retired from teaching energy-conscious design in the Cal Poly architecture department. He served on many San Luis Obispo advisory committees, including for eight years on the city Planning Commission.