San Luis Obispo is about to gain a new boutique hotel and mixed-use development downtown, but time is quickly running out for residents to make sure it will not be an eyesore, out of proportion and style with our city. Our last opportunity to voice concerns as a community to this project—which is unprecedented in bulk, mass, and scale in the downtown—likely will be the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
As it has been presented, the project violates the character of our downtown: It is not in harmony with the human scale, the architecture, the colors, the details, and materials that form our civic environment. As visitors drive up Marsh Street into town, the project will be one of their first views of the historic downtown. In fact, the intersection at Broad and Marsh is really the gateway to the downtown historic center. Accordingly, structures on that corner should be significant and welcoming. We don’t need a Brandenburg Gate, but a notable landmark structure to introduce our town, one befitting our civic pride.
The building as presented at the latest Architectural Review Commission meeting is not at all welcoming. It is primarily dark gray and white, without articulation of structure, details, or architectural clarity. In the future, when CVS Pharmacy on the opposite side of the street enlarges their corner, they should propose a reciprocal eminent structure, completing the portal.
The architect presented the project at the Cultural Heritage Committee meeting on July 25, describing his design concept as mixing the old with the new, the Mission with the modern. However, in this case, the “modern”—most of it dark gray—is at street level and the “Mission” (in white) is mostly located in floors above the street, so pedestrians will be unable to sense the old as they walk. There are long stretches where the towering building facades are solid dark gray with few windows, providing a dark, bleak stretch for pedestrians, with no setbacks or colonnades. Lacking grace, detail, and architectural nuances, the forms are simplistic, unrefined.
Just after 1900, New York developed a city planning code listing amenities that should be included in the development of tall buildings, including many window openings along the street for security and pedestrian enjoyment, trees along the streets, and step-backs. Step-backs from the street reduce the appearance that tall buildings loom over streets and also foil the illusion at sidewalk level that tall buildings look top heavy and menacing. The Garden Street Terraces plan ignores many such amenities.
Color applied in a nearly monolithic manner—from the proposed huge gray box on the corner of Broad and Marsh to the huge expanse of Benjamin Moore-painted White Dove stucco and stucco painted in Benjamin Moore Graystone, Gray Mountain, and Charcoal Slate colors—exacerbates the perception of monolithic scale. Moreover, the colors and architectural details in the elevations used in the Mission style could be better arranged with the modern to help designate the various building identities and make the project more interesting. A warm brown or red brick, similar to that already used nearby in SLO, would be more welcoming, and with proper detailing, could be stunning. A soft tan that is typical for Mission buildings, not the stark Benjamin Moore White Dove paint, should be used on the proposed Mission-style condo and hotel buildings.
The project lacks any details at the rooflines, the corners, or around the windows; there are not even expansion joints to help prevent the stucco from cracking. Stucco, which is used throughout, is one of the cheapest building materials available, and without proper detailing looks cheap, not boutique!
There could be much more variety in building forms and details, and the architectural materials could be of higher quality. Brick, marble, travertine, or other such materials assert quality: Namely, this place is special and honored. If the budget does not allow quality material, the project should be reduced to afford it.
Several recently modified buildings in the historic center have interesting details through refined use of colors. Clerestory windows and transoms above doorways add details that emulate the old existing facades and bring wonderful daylight into the interiors. There are cafes with tables and chairs out front and welcoming, deeply recessed entries. The new project should bring these wonderful ideas into the design palette.
We should be concerned about all new construction from Santa Rosa Street to Nipomo Street and from Marsh to Palm streets. This new project is right in the middle of our historic downtown. Please look into this massive impending project and voice your concerns at the city council meeting on Tuesday evening, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m.
Sandra Davis Lakeman is emeritus professor of architecture at Cal Poly and the author of the urban design book Natural Light and the Italian Piazza. Send comments via the opinion editor at email@example.com.