SLO's battle isn't just over zoning. We're fighting for the heart and soul of the city

Some San Luis Obispo residents worry that new zoning rules under review would allow too much residential density.  In this March 16, 2016, file photo, seven single-family residences are under construction.
Some San Luis Obispo residents worry that new zoning rules under review would allow too much residential density. In this March 16, 2016, file photo, seven single-family residences are under construction.

On the night of April 10, the San Luis Obispo City Council gave direction on a number of very important and controversial changes to the city’s zoning regulations. This direction on policy included:

  1. Significantly increasing the densities in R-2, R-3 and R-4 residential neighborhoods;

  2. Quadrupling (at a minimum) the densities of housing in our downtown core;

  3. Increasing our densities in R-1 residential neighborhoods through accessory dwelling units and tiny homes;

  4. Reducing, and in some cases eliminating, the opportunity for public comment on virtually all projects;

  5. Consolidating decision making powers in the hands of the planning director;
  6. Cutting back on automobile parking.

That night’s staff report contained eight questions and the council was prompted to answer “yes” or “no” to each question. Though this protocol was not strictly followed, the council gave tacit approval to all eight zoning changes. Additional areas of concern were added by council, such as more opportunities for micro-businesses, locating housing in shuttered shopping malls and auto parks and increased flexibility in siting schools.

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Many of the property owners and landlords who wrote letters or spoke out in opposition to these policy changes were not representing their own financial interests. In other words, they were not representing the "monied interests." Should all eight policy changes be implemented, our property values will go up and our rental incomes will increase. This is because the homes we live in will be valued based on the increase in potential rental income they will earn (should we decide to vacate these properties and many of us will do so under these circumstances) and our rental properties will become lucrative mini-dorms.

But instead of focusing on our pocket books, we filled the council chamber that night to fight for the heart and soul of San Luis Obispo. We all believe the SLO Life will be a thing of the past should the city continue to move this aggressively toward densification — toward stacking and packing more people into tighter quarters while making across-the-board reductions in parking requirements. The city is reducing parking requirements, anticipating that personalized transportation will go away. What will replace this? Riding bicycles or riding mass transit.

However, many experts predict that, with the lower fuel costs of solar-powered electric vehicles and with the added convenience of self-driving cars, personalized transportation will increase, not decrease. This will demand more car parking, not less, and more cars, not fewer, will be clogging our roads. Traffic congestion will become untenable, parking will become unavailable and neighborhood cohesion — that is, what’s left of it — will be long gone.

Throughout the city, there remains a feeling of being in the country while also being in the city. This, too, will be lost once San Luis Obispo continues to encourage construction of mid-rise and high-rise buildings. Deputy Planning Director Doug Davidson that night insisted building heights were not part of this discussion. But pressures for taller buildings will increase once R-2, R-3 and R-4 properties are literally up-zoned. And pressures for taller buildings will increase once density restrictions downtown are removed in exchange for smaller units.

Allan Cooper Courtesy Photo

We resist the civic homogenization that can turn our town into every other town. But our unique sense of place and small-town charm will be lost once public engagement, good planning and contextual fit is taken off the table.

With regard to public engagement, City Manager Derek Johnson commented that public feedback will remain the same. We find this hard to believe for several reasons.

First, the Architectural Review Commission’s purview will be scaled back to conceptual review. This will limit the public’s opportunity to comment on parking layouts, floor plan layouts and landscaping as these items will be referred to the director. Second, the Tree Committee’s purview will be scaled back as they will no longer review street tree removal. Again this will stifle the public’s opportunity to comment. Lastly, both ARC and Cultural Heritage Committee recommendations will be simply “advisory” to the director. The director will make all final decisions without any public oversight.

With regard to good planning and contextual fit: For Tier 1 projects (5 units or smaller and less than 10,000 square feet), the Planning Commission will automatically be left out of the review process, no matter how controversial the project may be and so will go “good planning."

When the meeting dates for the Cultural Heritage Committee and Architectural Review Committee are scheduled to take place at the same time, there will be little opportunity for the ARC to be advised of concerns the CHC may have with any given project. And so will go “contextual fit."

Moreover, if the CHC denies the project and the ARC approves the project, these disagreements must be sorted out by the planning director, again leaving the public completely out of these deliberations.

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We are therefore urging the city to put a stop to this steamroller mentality centered on under-parked, overly dense developments and this capitulation to the monied interests by simplifying and fast-tracking the development review process.

Allan Cooper is a retired Cal Poly architecture professor and registered architect, a former San Luis Obispo planning commissioner and the secretary of Save Our Downtown.

Upcoming Meetings

The city's Planning Commission will continue to review the zoning regulation drafts in upcoming meetings every second and fourth Wednesday of the month at City Hall at 990 Palm St. Meetings begin at 6 p.m.

A community workshop on zoning will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 3 at the City-County library at 995 Palm St.

The City Council is scheduled to review proposed new zoning regulations on June 27.