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SLO development on Foothill moves forward despite opposition 

A four-story apartment complex on Foothill Boulevard in SLO is one vote away from becoming a reality.

Despite concerns expressed by residents and officials about traffic, parking, and design impacts, the city Planning Commission voted 5-1 on July 25 to approve the 6,800 square-foot mixed-use project, which will provide 78 housing units—including 12 affordable studios—and ground floor commercial space.

click to enlarge APPROVED Despite resistance from residents and officials, the SLO Planning Commission voted to approve a four-story mixed-use project on Foothill Boulevard. It will next go to the City Council for a final green light. - RENDERING COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SLO
  • Rendering Courtesy Of The City Of Slo
  • APPROVED Despite resistance from residents and officials, the SLO Planning Commission voted to approve a four-story mixed-use project on Foothill Boulevard. It will next go to the City Council for a final green light.

Mainly geared toward serving Cal Poly students, the apartments at 790 Foothill would go kitty-corner to another student-oriented development that's under construction at 22 Chorro St. It would displace the Blackhorse Espresso and Bakery that's currently on the site. The same developer, Loren Riehl, is behind both projects.

Riehl received two code exemptions for the project: an increase in the site coverage allowed, from 75 percent to 90 percent, and an increase in the height of the building, from 35 feet to 43 feet. He was also granted a 35 percent "density bonus" for providing the affordable housing units, which will be rented for $728 per month, according to city staff.

While commissioners fretted that the project was "overbuilt" and "underparked," they said that they lacked discretion due to new state laws that curtail localities' control over housing.

Officials also argued that the project met city goals and policies. When SLO updated the land-use element of its general plan in 2014, it designated the Foothill Boulevard corridor as a "special" area suited for higher-density development.

"We decided that we needed more density at some of these key locations," Commissioner Chuck Stevenson told an unhappy crowd of residents in City Hall. "I understand the concern—there's a certain degree of buyer's remorse that we've adopted this plan. We're now going to see implementation of these plans that we all sort of agreed on."

The state's Housing Accountability Act and the Density Bonus Law also restrict a city's purview when it comes to housing projects. The law requires that cities denying developments make objective findings that the given project would have "specific, adverse impact upon public health or safety." Riehl's development met parking standards, and a traffic study concluded that it would not have significant effects on circulation.

Stevenson, who was the one dissenting vote on the commission, expressed frustration with the laws' overall effect on local control.

"They sort of threw this legislation that affects all of us in the state," he said. "I'd want to do a little tweaking of the design and make it fit better. ... I'd like to have that sort of opportunity. ... We don't have any discretion on that because of this. That's what we have to live with. We're going to be living with it indefinitely unless that changes. This is not a good thing for the city of SLO."

Residents in attendance weren't convinced of the traffic study's findings and lamented the loss of a viewshed of Bishop Peak.

"In our headlong rush to build more housing in this community, I'm just fearful that we're doing it on the backs of the existing residents and degrading the quality of life that makes SLO so special," said Marc Brazil.

In addition to the public's verbal testimony, an attorney representing a group called the Foothill Blvd Civic Defense submitted a letter that asked the planning commissioners to make more demands of the developer, including environmental review and design alternatives.

"It seems like our hands are tied," Commissioner Mike Wulkan said.

Next, the SLO City Council will have to sign off on the project's two code exemptions. A date has not been set for the hearing, according to the city. Δ

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