Historic neighborhoods at risk in San Luis Obispo
November 4, 2010
When the onerous $10,000 per infraction and up to $5,000 a day for 30 days fines were removed from the proposed San Luis Obispo historic ordinance, it may have been tempting to think that was the end of the horrendous impact this ordinance would have on historic neighborhoods.
Not so, as part of this ordinance and guidelines, the city intends to grant itself the power to:
(Ch.4.1.3.b) “Re-establishment of the property’s historic use…provided the Director determines such uses are compatible with adjacent uses.” and
(c) “Any other uses which is determined to be compatible with its surroundings and…”
Basically, this new power for the city planning director and the Cultural Heritage Committee will undo the protections that our current zoning laws provide. Right now, people who have moved into what they thought was a residential neighborhood have the reasonable expectation that it will remain so. This new provision will undo that.
As background for this issue let me briefly explain why the Old Town Neighborhood Association was created and why some of these issues were so controversial then…and are now being resurrected in the guise of “incentives” by those who seem to have no idea what it takes to maintain a ‘neighborhood’, much less really care about historic preservation.
About 30 years ago, the Old Town area was being subjected to a number of requests to turn homes in the residential neighborhoods into offices. Many of us were young and knew very little about the effects of zoning. We liked our homes, could exchange our energy as labor to fix them up, liked being near downtown and thought this would be a good place to raise our children.
The idea that ‘the house next door’ could become a vacant building at night, weekends and holidays was not something we had even considered when we moved into this neighborhood. We began to realize that the security of our neighborhood would be compromised if we had the turnovers of strangers, and the traffic and parking impact of their cars, constantly throughout the day. Faced with applications for the conversion of what were currently lived-in homes, we had a big wake-up call.
After having to speak against multiple requests for these ‘office conversions’ we finally organized and confronted the city with being honest with residents about what did the city want for this area. The city said it liked having the historic homes but then was doing everything to make it difficult to live here. For instance, there was a huge ‘right-of-way’ on Broad St. that was never disclosed to residents who bought on that street, residents couldn’t plant trees in front of their own homes, and there were pressures on the city council from those who said this area would be better off as offices.
Many of us had put everything we had into purchasing our homes and this was a complete shock to us. Besides the ability to live in our own homes, there was an even greater community benefit to having this area remain residential. The history of “downtowns” in California gave a very clear picture that, where downtowns lost their surrounding residential areas, those downtowns eventually deteriorated.
It was just a matter of time before the absence of neighbors walking around, the absence of people who could hear if there was a cry for help, and just the high transiency of the area made it feel unsafe. People didn’t go through a ‘no man’s land’ for dinner, theater and other downtown uses – especially at night. This pattern was documented over and over again.
In bringing this to the attention of downtown business leaders, we were able to work together to come up with an effective and reasonable plan that met both of our needs. A few blocks were designated for office expansion, and the rest were to be kept sacrosanct! No more intrusions! No more constant threats to change what could happen next door.
Residents could buy homes in Old Town, fix them up, and feel secure that this would remain a nice residential area in which to live. They would not have to feel in constant jeopardy that, if they missed a city ‘notice’ or couldn’t drop what they were doing to go down and protest, that they would end up without neighbors.
Now that you know the background, perhaps you can appreciate the absolute irresponsibility of the city proposing to leave “allowable uses” in the hands of a planning director. This undoes everything we worked for, thought we had accomplished, both for the security of the residents of this city and for the betterment of the town as a whole. Every ‘exception’ that is made (no matter how many justifications are made to allow it) becomes the basis for the next exception.
It is beyond comprehension how any planner could think that introducing such ‘exceptions’ to the zoning laws of a neighborhood would add to the quality of life for residents. In an area that is already fragile due to a very high number of non-owner occupied homes, anything that would take away the remaining sense of stability, will be what finally turns the tide of ‘livability’. Families will just keep moving out, as many (over approximately 60 percent) already have.
Some of the ‘old uses’ that have been in our neighborhood include: fraternities, a sanitarium, a maternity hospital, a general hospital, doctor’s offices, machine shops, hair salons, and even a house of ill-repute…and that’s just in a couple of blocks. I’m sure other blocks have even more uses that they can add.
It’s a ‘life lesson’ that many of us have learned… if you take things for granted, and don’t protect them, that, eventually you will lose them. We’ve done well with the existing zoning protections and have even flourished.
But these city provisions to, basically, put residents and homeowners under constant threat again, will undo all that. And, if that happens, no ordinance will be able to buy back the good will and pride that the city currently experiences from historic (district) homeowners.
Peg Pinard is a former county supervisor and mayor of San Luis Obispo.