Turning SLO into Slum Luis Obispo
November 1, 2016
OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT
This is a tale of two cities, both faced with rapacious demands from developers buoyed by a new state law that provides incentives to developers who include a few units of “affordable” housing in their projects. One city’s leaders acted forcefully to protect the public interest and community planning standards, the other city’s leaders didn’t just capitulate, but adopted a stance that jettisons the public interest and the city’s adopted community planning rules, and signals to all developers that adopted plans and zoning mean nothing and they can get exemptions from anything plans and zoning are about.
The two cities: Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.
The San Luis Obispo project is known as 22 Chorro, which is on Foothill Boulevard at the corner of Chorro Street, a former gas station site that’s been vacant for a few years. The land is zoned for neighborhood commercial uses, but a twerpy upstart LA developer wants to put an apartment house there instead of a commercial building. In return for including four “affordable” units, he demanded numerous exemptions from zoning, parking, building height laws and from the city’s general plan, which carries the force of law.
Would an intelligently run city not have said, “Wait a minute”? Well, in SLO, the city’s planning staff said, “Let’s go.”
They recommended the project’s approval to the Planning Commission, which having a brain of its own, said no, and rejected the project for all the reasons staff should have raised when they first saw the project.
What you have to understand about staff at SLO city hall is they’ve become imperial, even pushing a compliant city council around. The planning operation is corrupted, and thus, as an example, the staff planner for this project introduced herself to a different city advisory body considering a different project by this same developer this way: “I represent the applicant.” Really! But she’s paid by the taxpayers to represent them, not the developer.
So the developer appealed the Planning Commission denial to the City Council, who are elected to represent residents’ interests. Once again, the imperial staff advocated for the developer, and told the council to diss the Planning Commission’s thoughtful denial. As usual, the staff report was stuffed with things to support staff’s pro-developer recommendation, but not to support a balanced and well-reasoned consideration of pros and cons.
The council hearing was a circus. Many residents and neighbors pled with the council to uphold the city’s planning rules, to scale down the project, to make it better, but there was ginned-up testimony in favor of the project courtesy of the Home Builders Association of SLO County, whose testifiers omitted mentioning their economic interests.
Council response was fascinating. Carlyn Christianson, the chief council sponsor of converting San Luis Obispo into Slum Luis Obispo, envisioned a delirious future of projects like this, creating a canyon of zero-setback tall buildings lining Foothill Boulevard, obliterating views, turning the street into a mini-Manhattan, subjecting apartment dwellers to noise and pollution 24/7.
Christianson’s second vote on the council, Dan Rivoire, thought the project great. Many believe that if elected, candidate Aaron Gomez will become Christianson’s third vote.
Mayor Jan Marx, who sought support from the neighborhood’s residents for her re-election, also sided with the developer’s abusive design plans, with no effort to mitigate any of their problems.
Dan Carpenter’s vote, and its aftermath, was most troubling of all. Under any reasonable ethical standard, Carpenter, who has an ownership interest in another nearby property proposed for similar development by this same developer, should have recused himself. Carpenter has stated his family will gain financially from development of the other property. Many believe that given the controversial similarities of the two projects, approval of one improves the chances of approval of the other. Despite this, Carpenter voted to approve 22 Chorro. Days later, the Home Builders Association, which has vigorously ginned support for both projects, gave Carpenter a $5,000 contribution for his supervisorial campaign, suggesting a possible quid pro quo for his vote. None of this sits well with anyone with even a tinge of concern about conflict of interest in public affairs.
Only John Ashbaugh opposed 22 Chorro, citing his own concerns, stating agreement with many concerns of residents about busting our public planning rules, pointing out alternatives none of which his fellow council members would consider, and finally voting no.
The story might have ended there, for the moment at least. But in response to a furor on the social media site Nextdoor, Mayor Marx decided to “defend” her capitulation to the developer.
Her defense amounted to “the governor made me do it,” referring to the new state law. Really? That’s the level of leadership our mayor provides?
Marx’s vote infuriated hundreds of her supporters, her Nextdoor piece even more. “Marx for Mayor” signs began coming down throughout the north end of town. If Marx should end up losing this election, it could well be because of this sell-out vote of constituents she’d persuaded to support her once again.
The new state law cited by Marx is meant to advance affordable housing. 22 Chorro’s “affordable” housing is a scam. The apartment house is actually a student dorm. The “apartments” are almost all “two bedrooms” – Pullman kitchen, minimal living space, large bedrooms with mysterious double doors leading into them, bathrooms.
The apartment floor plan is similar to a just-opened student dorm on Taft Street. The website for that project illustrates the purpose of the double doors – enabling a partition so each “bedroom” becomes two, each side of the double doors leading to a new bedroom in what’s become a four-bedroom unit. Each bed rents from $1,000, which far from being “affordable” is actually ripping off students with above-market rents. So, at 22 Chorro, those “2-bedroom” dorm units will probably rent for $4,000 per month, which is way above market, and definitely not affordable.
The “affordable” scam involves adding four tiny “studio” apartments, which will rent for $650 per month to persons making no more than $27,000 per year (these numbers courtesy of councilman Ashbaugh). That rent isn’t much of a discount from normal studio rents, and the income limit is one most students could meet. So, the city might actually get zero affordable housing benefit from this project, for which it gave away its zoning rules and general plan regulations.
One has to ask, if Mayor Marx is a leader, why the capitulation rather than some strong negotiation with the developer to do what’s right? Why the lack of backbone in her vote – she didn’t need to throw her constituents under the bus.
Her excuse that it would be illegal not to surrender and give the developer everything he wants appears nonsensical. The council’s agenda packet included two resolutions to choose between: one for approval, the other for denial including all the legal findings the city attorney determined were needed to support a denial. So, is Marx suggesting the city attorney is incompetent and her rejection resolution wrong?
At the same time this farce was unfolding in SLO, a similar drama was unfolding in Los Angeles. But with what a difference! Two stories last week in the LA Times laid it out.
A tall building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood proposed too much bulk, too much height, too few affordable units, too cramped sidewalks, too little parking, too much traffic congestion – hey, sounds just like 22 Chorro’s issues. And like 22 Chorro, the developer was using the new state law on including affordable housing to argue for exemptions from various local plans and laws.
This project’s design wasn’t by some non-entity of an architectural-license-holder but by the best of the best big-name LA architects, Frank Gehry. The developer was an experienced and responsive operator who had a reputation to maintain in contrast to a hit-and-run operator from out of town. Interestingly, LA wasn’t the least bowled over by the glitz, fame and power of this developer-designer team.
As in SLO, in LA there’s a strong reaction growing to runaway Manhattanization of the city. “The Gehry project has become a flashpoint in the larger debate across Los Angeles about denser development, one that has sparked a measure on next March’s ballot that would significantly slow growth,” said the Times.
Project opponents were explicit in their critique, and included neighbors, a homeowners association, the city of West Hollywood (which borders the site but doesn’t include it) and, most importantly, the city council member who represents the area. LA residents have a big advantage over SLO by having district council representation rather than city-wide representation. If we did an initiative and shifted to district elections here, many of our problems with a non-responsive city hall would evaporate.
In the scheme of politics in LA, if a district representative opposes something, other district representatives respect that opposition. So last week, when council member David Ryu publicly announced his opposition prior to the project’s going before a council committee, he sent a powerful signal to the developer.
He also said this about the building’s plan-breaking aspects: “I want to be clear that I will not support a de facto revision to the Community Plan for this area.” Exactly the issue at 22 Chorro.
We don’t know from the Times what sort of negotiations may have taken place behind the scenes, but it’s clear Ryu or his proxies acted in a strong leadership role, unlike that played by our mayor and council. When the project came before the council committee, project objections were laid on the table, and the developer and architect quickly agreed to fix every objection raised.
The result is a building that’s shorter, better, has more affordable units and fewer market-rate units, has broader public sidewalks, has more on-site parking, and is a much better fit for its site and location in the city. It’s a building that fits within an adopted community plan instead of busting the community plan.
Did the developer actually lose anything? Probably not because developers always ask for more than they want so they can compromise, be good guys, and still get enough for a profitable project. This seems to be a dynamic our city council doesn’t understand. What’s saddest is that when our council gets developer-bullied, we now know they’ll roll over.
The impressive demonstration of leadership in LA to protect public interests threatened by development is totally lacking here.
This tale of two cities punctures the hot air balloon about how great our City of San Luis Obispo is. Our council just ran a flag up the flagpole to signal to every rapacious developer in the world: “We’re Open For Business.”
Given the precedent just established by our council and mayor, it looks like we’ve got some rough times ahead.
Richard Schmidt, a resident of San Luis Obispo, former city planning commissioner, architect, teacher, urges votes for Mike Clark and Mila Vujovich-LaBarre for city council.