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Taller downtown buildings win support 

Proposed increases in downtown San Luis Obispo building heights have won the support of two city advisory groups: the Cultural Heritage Committee and the Architectural Review Commission.

Both groups support a height limit of 60 feet to accommodate four stories, with taller, tiered buildings allowed on a case-by-case basis if they include specific amenities. Currently, only up-to-50-foot buildings are allowed.

Four-story structures are being considered at several downtown locations, including Marsh and Nipomo streets, the former Blade Runner building on Monterey and Morro streets, and surrounding the historic Ah Louis store on Palm and Chorro. Five-story buildings have been proposed for the block bordered by Broad, Marsh, and Garden streets, and for the block bordered by Monterey, Morro, and Palm streets.

City planning staff repeatedly used the word "moderate" to describe the height increase at the Oct. 2 meeting of the Architectural Review Commission (ARC). They also explained their decision to change the public review process into a two-step approach, to encourage what Community Development Director John Mandeville described in a memo as "a less emotional, more productive dialog."

Current city policies spelled out in the General Plan adopted in 1994 specify that new development should respect views of the surrounding hills from the sidewalk. City staff is suggesting a change that would state that "new downtown development adjacent to public, open spaces shall respect views of the hills." These "public, open spaces" aren't sidewalks, however. They include Mission Plaza and the creek walk, the Jack House Gardens, the Chinese Memorial Garden at Santa Rosa and Marsh streets, and the lawns in front of the old courthouse and City Hall, according to a staff report.

Allowing taller buildings is seen as a way to encourage more housing downtown, stacking residential units on upper floors above street-level retail.

"There is a strong argument to be made, particularly in downtown areas, for the incorporation of significant amounts of rental housing so as to accommodate people who work in downtown," the city's economic advisor, Allan Kotin, stated in a report. "Successful downtown development almost requires that much of the housing built accommodate some of these employees."

During public testimony at the ARC meeting, downtown business owner Sean Fitzpatrick posed a question: "If we increase the height for housing for downtown employees, how do we ensure it's affordable for them? The tenants will be national retailers who pay low wages. New housing would be geared to high-income earners. Let's be honest about who can afford it."

Associate Planner Michael Codron gave a one-hour presentation, along with a 54-page staff report, at the meeting.

"What can we lose?" he said. "The boutique, low-scale character, which many believe is a major attraction for tourists."

The gain would be the growth through redevelopment that's needed to "season" a successful downtown, he added.

The city planning commission is expected to consider the height issue at its meeting later this month, with the City Council taking it up after that. Public testimony is accepted at these meetings.


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