Viewpoints

Lack of oversight threatens the charm of downtown San Luis Obispo

Currently, it appears approvals of building projects are being fast-tracked through the San Luis Obispo City Planning Department.

On top of that, changes are being allowed after projects have already been approved that are damaging the character of our community.

How is this happening?

The recent update to our zoning regulations appears, in some cases, to have consolidated final approvals in the hands of the planning director (or his designee) and the city arborist.

Evidently, conformance to design guidelines is now taking a back seat to expediting the approval process.

Our concern is compounded by the fact that it is inconceivable to expect an individual (i.e., the director or his designee) to recognize or consider the social, aesthetic or practical concerns (including structural, site planning, urban planning and geological concerns) involved in the final approval of any building project.

We are concerned that the talent and diverse points of view represented on our advisory committees are going to waste.

What happens to our downtown when there’s a lack of public hearing oversight and a failure to include advisory bodies in the entire process, including getting their input on proposed changes?

We would like to characterize the recently built projects downtown, many of which have deviated from advisory body approvals:

Buildings that are out of scale and awkwardly proportioned

Note recent changes made with no public oversight to the Hotel SLO at 877 Palm Street.

Exhibiting a faddish fixation on discordant, high contrast dark colors

Note the 460 Marsh Street project where, on June 5, 2017, the architect was instructed, as a condition of approval, to “…work with staff to revise the materials and color palette to reduce the foreboding appearance of the Marsh Street elevation.” This was clearly not done.

Note the 1135 Santa Rosa project that received a go-ahead from staff planners, in spite of deviating from direction coming from the Architectural Review Commission.

Note the remodel at 1085 Santa Rosa authorized solely by the director with no public oversight.

Lacking significant response to context

Note the Downtown Terrace “shipping container” project at 546 Higuera, a non-conforming use that, legally speaking, should not have been grandfathered in once the new owner had decided to increase its intensity of use.

We also are witnessing wide-scale removal of mature, healthy street trees downtown. These include the mature street trees bordering the 1085 Santa Rosa remodel project, in front of 767 Higuera, and bordering 1135 Santa Rosa Street.

Our city is being “penny wise and pound foolish” when it truncates the development review process simply because it wants to shave a few dollars off the developers’ front-end costs.

The National Association of Homebuilders determined in a recent study that these development review costs — costs that are passed on to the future occupants — amount to a mere 4.5% of the total, which in our opinion is a small price to pay to ensure future quality development.

We are not alone in observing the decline in the quality of development occurring in our city. Residents and visitors (particularly visitors who would bring welcome dollars into our tourist economy) are surprised, disturbed and even aghast at what is happening to our city.

David Brodie of San Luis Obispo is a professor emeritus who taught at UC Berkeley and Cal Poly for over 45 years. Allan Cooper, also of San Luis Obispo, is a licensed architect, member of the AIA and a professor emeritus who taught at Cal Poly for over 34 years. Both have practiced in the fields of urban planning and architecture, and are founding members of Save Our Downtown.

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