Brendan Abrams is a liberal arts and engineering studies junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News editorial.
Affordability, environmental friendliness, student-community relations, maintenance of the natural landscape; many of these conflicts facing San Luis Obispo residents can be traced back to the complex and generally awful housing climate that continues to stunt the welfare of our town. We’ve reached an important crossroad where we must decide how the city will approach new developments while maintaining the high quality of life that put us on the map in the first place.
People love San Luis Obispo and whether we like it or not, it is becoming a hub of activity on the Central Coast. According to the United States Census Bureau, the San Luis Obispo population has been slowly and steadily growing in the last 20 years, even before taking Cal Poly’s growing student population into account. Growth is typically a good thing, but significantly less so when housing is both scarce and overpriced.
The demand for high-quality, affordable housing is not being met, and not because noone’s trying. Currently, there are three main forces at play, if we do some minor oversimplification: developers who want to build new single-family homes, politicians who like the idea of building smaller, more urban forms of housing and longtime residents who prefer to keep San Luis Obispo as it has been for decades.
The city is in a bit of a unique situation with its vibrant downtown and beautiful, wide-open green spaces. Nobody wants to squander the charm of downtown, nor do they want development to sprawl into sacred open spaces. I’d like to argue that those goals are not mutually exclusive and the addition of more urban, infill living spaces is the way to go if we want to be environmentally conscious while accommodating a growing population and maintaining the “Spirit of San Luis,” so to speak. Furthermore, developing housing in those open spaces, as has already begun, is altogether detrimental from a social, environmental and economic standpoint.
Let’s start with an example of some ill-advised development so that we can end on a positive note. Serra Meadows is a housing development off Prado Road that eats up, by a rough estimate, at least 40 acres of the South Hills open space.The neighborhood, comprised of 120 cookie-cutter houses, represents a huge affront to efficiency. Sure, the houses meet energy efficiency standards, but we’re talking 120 single family, 2000 square foot, fully landscaped houses all in the $500,000 to $700,000 price range.
This is hardly an efficient use of our resources. The neighborhood is completely sold out. So the developer, Mangano Homes, and its parent company, Wathen Castanos, might be rolling in dough. San Luis Obispo as a community, however, gave up a huge swath of green space just to add a couple upper-middle-class families. Do we really want to go the same route as all those other once-charming California towns, trading culture, diversity and a unique way of life for commercialism and homogeneity? If not, we have to act quickly. At this very moment another one of those expensive cookie-cutter neighborhoods, in Tuscan style and creatively dubbed “Toscano,” is being built directly adjacent to Serra Meadows. That type of development will only continue if left unchecked because it’s profitable.
A better solution to our housing crisis is to build spaces that are efficient by design. That means smaller spaces that are closer together, yet still comfortable for those living within. Historically, dwellings of that style work perfectly above the retail spaces downtown and in other high density areas.
In addition to requiring fewer resources to build and maintain, infill housing places residents steps from city centers, reducing or even eliminating their need to use or own a car. This further reduces costs on the city, the residents and the Earth’s atmosphere.
Right now, 22 Chorro St. is the talk of the town when it comes to infill housing. This is the triangular empty lot at the intersection of Chorro Street and Foothill Boulevard, across the street from the swanky new set of eateries and a literal stone’s throw from SLO Donut Company, if you have a good arm.
The proposal is to fit 27 apartments and commercial space in a four-story building on that small, half-acre parcel. At a full capacity of 50 residents, that’s about 10 (that’s TEN) times the residential space efficiency of Serra Meadows, which aims to put around 400 people on 40 acres of land. Add to that all the resources saved on landscaping and the proximity to Cal Poly, and 22 Chorro St stands out as a development that might really benefit this town, not to mention provide a pretty sweet place to live.
Some residents have spoken out against 22 Chorro St. and proposals like it, claiming that tall buildings impede views and the relative affordability of the units and closeness to campus will turn it into a mostly student-occupied structure. In other words, two bogus arguments. First of all, the building would only be four stories tall and would impede a very specific line of sight. As city council candidate Aaron Gomez pointed out, many of the trees in town are taller than that. Isn’t it better to risk a few views of nature from urban areas than to keep the views and destroy nature by building on it? As for the anti-student sentiment, any new quality, affordable, high-density housing is good housing. Regardless of who lives in the building, it will take strain off the market as a whole.
San Luis Obispo is so close to realizing the dream of being an urban utopia surrounded by natural paradise. Our civic leaders need to keep us on track by pushing against developers who prefer to turn the place into a suburban wasteland.