In a letter to the editor, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong addresses concerns with the proposed housing project. | Courtesy Photo

Aja Frost
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Despite community concerns, Cal Poly has decided to move forward with plans to build a 1,400-person freshman residence hall near the Grand Avenue entrance to campus.

The university hopes to start the $200 million construction project next year and finish by Fall 2018.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong spent an hour talking to concerned community members and listening to their comments before the university sent out an email informing students of its decision at 11 a.m.

“They would love to see the housing somewhere else,” Armstrong said.

Cal Poly proposed the Grand Avenue site in May 2013. Two public forums held later in Nov. and Dec. revealed some local residents’ dissatisfaction.

Nicole Carter, senior planner for SWCA environmental consultants, said her office received 34 letters in response to Cal Poly’s original announcement of the Grand Avenue location. Most of them were opposed to the project location.

“Their biggest concern is that freshman students, who are underage, going out into the neighborhoods for parties right by their house,” Armstrong said. “And that is a legitimate concern.”

Cal Poly examined two other sites for the project: an 8.6-acre site along Via Carta, between the sports complex and the Poly Canyon Village housing complex, and a site along California Boulevard east of the railroad tracks, south of Highland Drive and just north of Alex G. Spanos Stadium. These sites, however, were rejected because they would require additional time to build and are distant from other freshman housing.

Another important factor weighing into the university’s decision was money. According to university spokesperson Matt Lazier, per-bed construction costs ranged from 8 percent to 20 percent more at the other considered sites. This would have resulted in higher housing costs for students.

“The residents seem to understand — I can’t speak to whether they accept it or not — but they seem to understand my rationale that that’s really the only place we can add first-year housing,” Armstrong said.

The Effects

The neighborhood’s concerns influenced the university’s decision to hire two additional police officers. Armstrong said there will probably be a sub-station in the Grand Avenue area so that those officers could be assigned to the surrounding neighborhood.

Local residents have also suggested that the university shift the housing toward the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center, thus making the parking lot a barrier between the residence halls and the neighborhood.

“Our folks will be talking about that,” Armstrong said. “We do have a nice green buffer planned of landscapes, terrain, even fences, so that students have to follow the sidewalks and go the normal pathways.”

And since the majority of alcohol-related crimes are committed by students who live off-campus, as opposed to in university housing, the administration believes this expansion will decrease neighborhood crime.

There will also be less local traffic.

“The project will actually capture a significant number of commuting students,” Carter said. “So by housing them, you reduce the trips associated with those students.”

Designing a Residence Hall

The new housing will allow the university to house nearly 45 percent of undergraduates, up from the current mark of 36 percent. This year, Cal Poly was forced to convert rooms in Cerro Vista and Poly Canyon Village into doubles and triples to accommodate the increased number of freshmen living on campus.

Though Cal Poly’s administration is committed to providing first-year housing, Armstrong said he feels that Cerro Vista and Poly Canyon Village are better suited for continuing students.

“We don’t want those to be freshman housing in the future,” Armstrong said. “That’s okay, the students (living in Cerro Vista and Poly Canyon Village) are doing well, but it’s not ideal for long-term student success.”

This project will hopefully allow the university to shift all future freshmen out of the existing apartments, but the Grand Avenue location will come with many amenities.

There will be five residential buildings, classrooms, a welcome center, community lounges and recreational space. The plans also include room for a 1,600 to 2,000 square-foot dining operation with outside seating.

“What goes in there could be a coffee shop, it could be a chop salad place, it could be a sushi bar,” Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said. “We’re not sure yet.”

The new dorms will consist of doubles and quads. While the doubles are 185 square feet — comparable to the size of the red brick South Mountain Halls — their costs will likely be more on par with Cerro Vista.

Cal Poly Corporation is also currently surveying students and conducting market surveys to figure out how to best use VG Cafe, with the knowledge that 1,400 freshmen will probably be moving in across the street. Spokesperson Yukie Murphy has previously talked about the possibility of a new dining facility.

The First Step

Armstrong is looking to make living on campus a requirement for first- and second-year students, pointing to studies Cal Poly has done which show that grades, campus connectedness and student retention rate are all improved by staying in university housing. Seeing students stay on campus for three or four years is yet another goal.

“There’s a certain number of students that turn us down each year because they say, ‘You can’t promise us four-year housing,’” Armstrong said.

Although the two other sites looked at weren’t found to be suitable for freshman housing, in the future Cal Poly will likely look at their potential for upperclassman housing.

The university is not planning to increase acceptance rates specifically as a result of this project, although Armstrong has said he hopes to increase the student population to approximately 24,000 in 12 or 15 years.

“This housing project is the first step towards that,” Humphrey said.

There will be another 45-day comment period after a review of the two rejected sites has been added to the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR). While there will not be another open forum, the university will continue to communicate with San Luis Obispo residents and seek the opinions of local business and community leaders.

Comments from the public have already pushed the project back two months: Cal Poly had originally planned to seek approval from the CSU Board of Trustees in March, but opted to write the draft EIR, pushing their request back to May.

“We could’ve taken a shortcut that would have been completely legal, but we wanted to engender that communication,” Armstrong said. “We want to be aggressively transparent about it, but we also want to do what’s best for the students.”

Lola Washburn, 83, said she’s lived in her house on Slack Street near Cal Poly for 60 years. She said though students who live up the hill from her are occasionally noisy, it’s road space that’s really an issue.

“Right now there’s no parking at all,” she said. “At this side of the street you need a parking sticker, and they give you two, but then they let five or six kids move into one house.”

John Evans, 89, agreed. He said he’s lived in his house on Longview Lane for 53 years, and he believes the new housing will cause even more traffic.

“There are a lot more parties and gatherings of groups,” he said. “I don’t think it would be a suitable companion to a residential neighborhood.”

Evans said he understands the need to accommodate all the incoming students, but would prefer to see the project built at an alternate site.

“I used to serve on the city planning committee for 10 years,” he said. “If I was still on that committee, I would definitely vote against it.”

In May, Cal Poly will present both its final EIR and an amendment to the Master Plan. If both are approved, the university will go back to the Board of Trustees in November for approval of the final project design.

“I hope the Board of Trustees will approve the decision,” Armstrong said. “Normally, once you get to that level, the staff works with you. No one wants projects to get to this level and fail.”

Katrina Borges contributed to this article.

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