San Luis Obispo city residents showed their concern for rising building height limits in the downtown area, appearing by the dozens before the City Council at its Sept. 4 meeting. The council with Christine Mulholland voting against and Allen Settle absent voted to loosen building standards from what had been recommended by the Planning Commission. The standards concern new projects 50 to 75 feet high.
The vote was largely a win for business interests, proponents of which had said that stricter standards would have dampened prospects for large-scale projects downtown, including the proposed Chinatown and Garden Street Terraces projects.
The SLO Chamber of Commerce, which had opposed the recommended position, expressed relief at the vote.
Debate centered on three issues: Building setbacks, affordable housing standards, and the preservation of historic buildings and sites. Specifically, members weighed whether these issues should be approached as performance standards (required) or policy objectives (used as guidelines, of which two should be incorporated).
The draft ordinance submitted by the Architectural Review Committee, the Planning Commission, and the Cultural Heritage Committee recommended requiring building setbacks from the second or third floor to allow natural light onto streets and sidewalks. The council voted to include that point, but only as a city objective.
In a nod to affordable housing concerns, the council also diverged from the recommendations to demand that housing units in the taller buildings be smaller on average than the Planning Commission had recommended: 1,200 square feet instead of 1,500 for buildings up to 75 feet, and 1,000 square feet instead of 1,100 for buildings up to 60 feet. Larger average square footage was intended to allow for a mix of condo sizes and prices.
Planning Commission Chair Carlyn Christianson said at the meeting that, in general, commissioners supported raising height limits, but warned the council not to destroy what they cherished in SLO.
"Why have the Cultural Heritage Committee and the master list if you let developers tear it down?" she asked.
When it came time to vote, the council also made a distinction between a master list of 33 historically significant properties and a list of less significant properties. While the Cultural Heritage Committee urged consideration of all properties for preservation or adaptive reuse, the council voted to make preservation an objective, not a standard. Councilperson Paul Brown and others noted that the list needed updating.
Mulholland agreed that the list should be updated, but argued that it shouldn't be disregarded because of any existing flaws. She expressed disappointment that citizens had not been polled and were not being represented.
"People don't want bigger buildings," she said. "Developers want bigger buildings."
She went on to say that the council should demand much more in the way of public benefit in exchange for taller buildings.
Brown said in a later phone interview that the vote didn't leave any one clear winner.
"Sometimes," he said, "you have to make decisions that don't really make either side happy, but for the overall future of SLO, you've got to make the decision that's best for the city."
He emphasized that taller buildings were already being allowed in the city, but on an arbitrary, case-by-case basis.
"This just makes the process more standardized," he explained.