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Character counts, even downtown 

Copeland's Chinatown snubs historic Chinese culture

On Nov. 25, 2014, The Tribune posted an article showing the latest architectural rendition of the Chinatown Project that contains a 76-room hotel, the Piazza Hospitality Group Hotel. Drawings were first shown to the public in 2009. At that time, the project displayed a French provincial character with details that created an acceptable scale for San Luis Obispo, although the project unacceptably towered 75 feet in height. In today’s scheme, there is a schizophrenic relationship between the modern, boxy, black or dark brown and light green stucco hotel structure that hovers over Palm and Morro streets and the historic building façades on Monterey Street.

The architectural perspective prepared by the architect and shown in The Tribune depicts the block of Monterey, Chorro, Morro, and Palm on flat ground; there is no hill. The actual rise of the hill from Monterey Street along Chorro and Morro streets up to Palm Street is not shown, but in actuality is approximately 26 feet according to the Public Works Department of SLO—a three-story height difference. Their depiction conveys the impression that the hotel will not tower over the Monterey Street shops. In The Tribune perspective, this slope difference would have increased the hotel’s true hovering effect over the entire area.

Seeing the Piazza Hospitality Group Hotel towering above this delightful, colorful row of buildings on Monterey is “a shock,” as the two are not compatible. Everyone who has seen this latest scheme has said the following: “It does not fit.”

The new hotel is black or dark brown and light green. Similar colors applied to stucco appeared first in “The Mix” at 1308 Monterey Street, another overbearing, cheap, modern, and out-of-scale building. It doesn’t help that the lime-green stucco corner on “The Mix” is already discolored with splotchy stains. Moreover, black or dark brown is the darkest of colors and should not be applied to an entire façade. It works well on small details to make them stand out, such as a window frame, but an entire dark façade is morbid and should at all costs be discouraged in SLO. In fact, black or dark brown should be banned on entire façades in SLO.

But where is Chinatown in the Chinatown Project?

There is not even a mere suggestion of the past existence of this center of Chinese culture in the new hotel design. The three historic buildings that remain within the Chinatown Historic District are the Ah Louis Store, Chong’s Candy Store, and the restaurant Mee Heng Low Noodle House. However, there is little if anything suggested in this new proposal that even hints at the past existence or importance of the Chinatown community. A proposed glass kiosk with pictures of Chinese honorees is not a proper tribute; it perhaps could announce a photo exhibit within the hotel.

Architect Mark Rawson can do better than this, as can be seen in both of his previous urban design projects, the Court Street Mall and the Downtown Center at 888 Marsh St. Mr. Rawson could create a credible makeover of the project so that it responds to the small-town scale of SLO and is more contextual with traditional Chinese architecture.

In 2006, in the Chinatown historic area, R2L Architects of SLO presented a proposal for the L-shaped parking lot wrapping around the Ah Louis Store, the Ah Louis Museum & Commercial Building. Although the four-story building’s height was too high, the proportions used, the colors, and the details were very compatible with the Ah Louis building. The character of Chinese architecture was well represented by the windows repeating the proportions of the Ah Louis windows, the street façade with the garden entry, and on the delightful top floor Chinese roof features, such as a beamed terrace to the southwest and a hipped roof tower with decorative motifs at the northwest corner, making a traditional, pleasing meeting with the sky.

Architectural critic and historian Charles Jencks writes that architects should “abandon the universal notions of Modernism derived from functionalism and rationalism ... and embrace the familiar, the historical, and the vernacular.” Using the best of cultural Chinese influences in new buildings informs us of this unique and noble culture, as does the small Chinese park located at Santa Rosa and Marsh streets. We suggest that Mr. Rawson and team take inspiration from this proposed project by R2L.

Contextual architecture responds to the visual, historic, and humanistic qualities of the environment. It seems to be a rare architect who understands how to do this—how to harmonize with the existing urban fabric, yet build something new.

As elaborated in detail in the city’s Community Design Guidelines, “harmonizing” means that the structure, the materials, the proportions, the colors, and the details should respond to those that already exist within the selected environment.

The pending hotel design is the antithesis of common Chinese architecture at the turn of the 20th century. Mr. Rawson and city decision makers chose to respond more to the Palm Street parking garage than the best examples of architecture in the Chinese culture.

Now that the hotel will be owned by the Piazza Hospitality Group, perhaps the new owners could guide a new design toward that of another hotel that they own in Healdsburg, which is a simple but contextual design in that community. 

If the architect and developer fail to redesign the Chinatown Piazza Hotel, the result will be too ignominious, too tragic to bear the name “Chinatown.” It will also make a travesty of the intended use of the city’s historic district ordinance.


Sandra Davis Lakeman is an emeritus professor of architecture, member of Save Our Downtown, and author and photographer of Natural Light and the Italian Piazza (1992) and Sardegna, the Spirit of an Ancient Island, The Art and Architecture of the Pre-Nuragic and Nuragic Cultures (2014). James Lopes is a retired county community planner, a former member of the SLO Architectural Review Commission, and a member of Save Our Downtown. Send comments to [email protected].

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