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Public parking lost, city land sold cheap, classic buildings gutted, hey, it's Chinatown 

The SLO City Council voted Nov. 17 to approve the Chinatown project, putting the final city endorsement on a near-decade-long effort to develop the 2.12-acre plot east of the mission. The project, approved on a 4-0 vote, will take up most of the block between Palm, Chorro, Morro, and Monterey streets and is slotted to feature condominiums, a “boutique” hotel, and upscale stores.

Councilmember John Ashbaugh recused himself because he said his wife worked within a block of the Chinatown site.

When constructed, the project is predicted to bring as much as  $1 million a year into the depleted city coffers. The city sold two parking lots to the developer, Copeland Properties, for $3.7 million in 2008—though they had been valued at $8.8 million.

The project will gobble up 155 public parking spaces, replacing them with 74 subterranean spaces that will be solely for the use of the guests of the hotel and condominium owners. The developer pledged to help pay the city for more parking. The developer’s plans call for 16 condominiums, two of which would be reserved for “moderate-income households” to comply with the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance requirement.

San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown area was once one of the largest between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Chinese workers built the narrow-gauge railroad between San Luis Obispo and the port at Avila Beach, and they were hired again when the Southern Pacific railroad came through in the 1890s. Two 19th century structures on Monterey Street—the Sauer Bakery Building and the Blackstone Hotel—will be gutted for the project, with only some outside walls remaining. The bakery’s large brick oven will be preserved.

The city had required the developer to allow the oven to be on display to the public. Copeland architect Mark Rawson objected, telling the council it would be very difficult to rent the space with the public-access provision, and that requirement could “jeopardize the project.” The council offered to soften the requirement, so the language used to approve the project would only suggest the maintaining of public access. Rawson again objected, and the council struck any mention of public access for the historical ovens.

The development has trod a tortured path to final approval. The Chinatown project was once coupled with the now-built Court Street Center and was first presented to the council in September 1999. The current design is smaller than past versions, due to a faltering economy and resistance from the public. None of the public speakers at the meeting were against the project.

The original plan called for 75-foot high buildings that would have towered over Monterey Street. The highest building will now face Palm Street and will be 50 feet tall. The 25-foot height reduction lowered the number of planned condos to 16 from 32. Rawson said they didn’t know when construction would begin.

—Robert A. McDonald

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