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Town-gown 2035

Housing, water, and transit are SLO's top concerns as Cal Poly looks to grow

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Editor's note: While the Cal Poly campus is closed now through spring quarter due to measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the university's plans for the future of its programs and expansion are still in the works.

Cal Poly's 2035 Master Plan, which after years of fine-tuning is slated for final California State University (CSU) approval this May, envisions a campus expansion of about 4,000 students, 800 new employees, and 1.3 million square feet of development.

Cal Poly student enrollment, which is currently at 21,242, would gradually rise to 25,000. Its faculty and staff workforce would increase from 3,148 to 3,934. Its campus would host new student dorms, a workforce housing complex, and a retirement community. Facilities would include a new Health and Well-Being Center, rec centers, and the growth of the Cal Poly Technology Park and the Beef Cattle Evaluation Center.

"Cal Poly's academic programs are in high demand and are poised to be in even more demand over the next 20 years," President Jeff Armstrong said in an introductory letter to the draft plan.

While the university hopes to finalize an environmental impact report (EIR) for the plan and get CSU board of trustees' approval in the coming months, San Luis Obispo expressed concern about its impacts.

In comments submitted to the university on the draft EIR, city officials outlined a variety of issues regarding Cal Poly's enrollment increases through 2035, which could stress the city's housing market, water supply, and transit services.

"The city staff's concern," SLO officials wrote in a staff report for its scheduled March 17 City Council meeting, "is that there is nothing in the Master Plan that links increased enrollment to the provision of housing on campus for students or faculty. ... More, housing production alone does not address other potential impacts in the city of on-campus population growth."

Under the Master Plan, Cal Poly promises to eventually house 100 percent of its first-year and second-year students and 40 percent of its upper-division students on campus, but enrollment numbers will start growing before that housing gets built.

Reasons for that, according to the city, are that in addition to claims of already making "steady progress" on building student housing, the university doesn't want to "set a precedent" for having to house all new students.

Cal Poly argues that it has proven to be able to provide on-campus housing for its cumulative student enrollment growth over the past 20 years. But SLO points to the academic year 2017-18 as proof that not all things go as planned. In 2017, Cal Poly saw an unexpectedly large freshman class of nearly 1,000 additional students, which stunned the city and created close to $100,000 in city service impacts.

SLO is worried about similarly uneven student growth in the future, and without the university infrastructure in place, it effectively forces the city to pick up the burden. The city also argues that Cal Poly didn't adequately look at growth in faculty and staff as part of the housing impact analysis. With a local vacancy rate of 3.6 percent, city officials warn that hundreds of additional students and employees will be seeking housing in the city before campus housing is built.

"The [EIR] dismisses impacts to housing by arguing that vacancy rates would accommodate this influx of new residents," the city's EIR comments stated. "This conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence."

Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier told New Times that as student enrollment rises by an anticipated 200 students per year under the Master Plan, Cal Poly intends to house a larger share of its campus community. Lazier pointed out that in this current academic year, approximately 658 fewer students live off-campus than did 20 years ago, because Cal Poly now provides housing for 37 percent of its student body versus 17 percent in 2000. Under the 2035 Master Plan, that percentage is expected to surge to more than 60 percent.

"As it has done over the last two decades, Cal Poly plans to house all of its enrollment growth, as well as significantly reduce the number of students living off campus," Lazier said.

Cal Poly plans to construct a new wastewater facility in the next decade, designed to handle the population increase and also provide non-potable water for irrigation. SLO has asserted that if Cal Poly's sewer construction schedule goes awry, it may need to lean on SLO's wastewater treatment plant for those services.

A larger campus population will also have a substantial impact on citywide transportation, from public transit services, to vehicle traffic, to bike lanes.

In a memorandum of understanding approved by the SLO City Council on March 17, SLO and Cal Poly agreed to work in good faith to resolve outstanding sticking points prior to the Master Plan's anticipated final approval in May. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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