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Tram Nguyen
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A petition letter signed by 28 past City Council members arrived at City Hall on April 16, with the message that the San Luis Obispo City Council and Cal Poly need more collaboration on future student housing changes, following some friction over the proposed Grand Avenue housing project.

Council member John Ashbaugh speculated that the “inflammatory, highly unprofessional” critique of Cal Poly by council member Dan Carpenter was one possible reason for the communication rift, though Ashbaugh avoided naming his colleague.

According to a New Times article, Carpenter said Cal Poly doesn’t consider being a good neighbor as its top priority, but refused to meet with Justin Wellner, director of government and community relations at Cal Poly, regarding his complaint.

In response to Wellner’s invitation, Carpenter said: “Please do not continue to insult my integrity by implying that our concerns are similar.”

Confronting the media about the City Council veterans’ letter — thought to be triggered by Carpenter’s hostility — Wellner wrote a formal but general email in which he listed topic areas that Cal Poly and the City Council regularly discuss. Wellner ended his email by saying both sides need to be educated and informed about issues pertaining to the other party to make balanced and effective decisions.

Mayor Jan Marx — a resident of the neighborhood adjacent to the future residence hall — has been prevented from directly communicating about the housing project.

Ashbaugh interpreted the veterans’ letter as a reminder that the council should move away from Carpenter’s “belligerent type of approach.”

After more than a century-long relationship, “we just can’t afford to have these pot shots being fired across the boundary,” Ashbaugh said.

Ashbaugh said he found it interesting that the letter addressed potential future student housing in general, not just the proposed 1,430-bed student residence hall.

Gordon Mullin, who is running for City Council, initiated the letter and collected the signatures.

“It is a big issue,” Mullin said in a Tribune article. “The character of the city, which has changed from owner-occupied to a predominately rental base, happened incrementally. It is now at everyone’s attention.”

Ashbaugh understands some homeowners move from the city, but keep their houses and rent them out to students to make money to pay for their mortgage, he said. Though that’s a good investment strategy, they leave behind “angry neighbors” dealing with some “nocturnal” young people who turn their rental into “a frat party house.”

“But those aren’t always Cal Poly students, either,” he said. “That’s an important thing to know. They’re often Cuesta students, or they’re from out of town.”

Ashbaugh and Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong have been communicating on the housing project to find common ground. Through his discussions with the president, Ashbaugh learned Armstrong’s goal is to have 55-60 percent of the Cal Poly enrollment accommodated on campus — double the currently tally.

“I would prefer that the next student housing be closer to the core of campus,” Ashbaugh said. “But I also realize that, given that goal of accommodating more than half of the student enrollment on campus, there’s almost no way that could be done logically without using the Grand Avenue site.”

Ashbaugh said he would like to see the school propose an alternative site plan in which the parking structure would be placed on the south end instead of the north end of the Grand Avenue site, to serve as a buffer between the single-family homes and the residence hall.

He’d also like to see the residence hall built at no more than three stories, instead of four. He said this project alone requires a master plan.

In response to Armstrong’s proposal, Ashbaugh also proposed a program to stabilize the residential neighborhoods around Cal Poly.

His plan requires that the city build a revolving fund to buy houses from homeowners at their market values and put restricted governance on them before putting them back out on the market.

The restricted governance means the houses will be resold, but subject to a condition that they’ll only be occupied by the owner and not converted to student rentals.

“Now what does that do for student routes?” Ashbaugh said. “What it does is basically channel the rentals into the neighborhood where they should be … apartments, duplexes, R2, R3, R4 neighborhoods or the occasional single-family home.” (R1-R5 represent districts with lower density).

According to Ashbaugh, the neighbors support his proposal.

But neighbors are not the only problem with the housing project. In fact, Vice Mayor Carlyn Christianson sent a 248-page letter to Cal Poly and the California State University Board of Trustees on March 25 to express the city’s concerns about environmental impacts by the housing project.

The concerns include bicyclist and pedestrian safety, noise and air quality, negative impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and the city’s infrastructure and resources, residential traffic congestion and the impact on local water supply.

Many public comments quoted in the letter highlight the fear that students will fight, vandalize and affect the quality of life of their neighbors.

Ashbaugh said the City Council has high and reasonable standards and is critical of environmental analysis. Therefore, he said, if such an environmental report had been submitted as a draft to the City Council’s planners, they would have fired the consultant.

However, Cal Poly is not under the city’s jurisdiction. Thus, it can proceed with the housing project without the city’s support. Ashbaugh expressed an interest in bringing the university into the city’s limits so students can register to vote.

“I think the neighborhood deserves to be heard and considered,” he said. “And I think they certainly need to have a sense that the Council is on their side.”

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