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Culture and Identity

Plans for abandoned San Luis Obispo property getting push back from neighbors

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KCBX News, Karen Garcia
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Plans are in the works to renovate the abandoned Sunny Acres building into Bishop Street Studios supportive housing.

A building abandoned for decades in one San Luis Obispo community could soon be restored as supportive housing for people with mental illness.

The building once called Sunny Acres is boarded up with wood, signs warning of trespassing and some pieces of broken glass.

It's now known as Bishop Street Studios, though the studios are not yet complete, and neighbors told KCBX they don't want the supportive housing facility in their backyards.

The home of Lanny Hernandez butts right up to the property and he said there are "some of the young families are scared to death of what might happen because of the kinds of people and their history who will be in that facility.”

He said he and many of his neighbors strongly support what Transitions does, but he feels the organization’s lack of information about this facility’s future residents is concerning and he doesn’t believe Transitions has any vision for the development.

Hernandez said neighbors would prefer to see a creative space where artists could collaborate and work together.

Local non-profit Transitions Mental Health Association submitted a housing permit application in June as part of its plan to restore the facility, as well as construct two more buildings to create a total of 34 studio and one-bedroom apartments for people with mental illness.

Jill Bolster-White is the project’s executive director and says her team wants the community to be comfortable with the plan and believes they can achieve that by educating neighbors about mental illness. Part of that effort has included introducing neighbors to residents of other similar programs.

She said it’s important to dispel myths about mental illness because that’s what drives misunderstanding.

“People with mental illness have the exact same goals as the rest of us in terms of a good relationship and connection to family, a place to live, meaningful purposeful work or activity," White said.

The plan calls for future project residents to have case managers and support groups.

She said the residents would be mostly self sufficient, but just need affordable housing to get the rest of the way.

“These are people who already live in the community, people who live in their neighborhoods they’ve grown up here. Maybe they’re living with their parents and they’re looking for that next step,” White said.

Development manager Michael Kaplan said Transitions has a solid plan to bring the building back to it’s original intention.

“We’re going to rehabilitate it, we’re going to add some new buildings and we’re going to turn it once again into a community resource that really benefits people and to me that is such a win-win, that’s the vision right there," he said.

And Larry Rosenthal, a housing and urban policy professor at UC Berkeley said design plays a big factor in neighborhood acceptance.

He said studies show there are now many supportive homes and buildings in various communities that house formally institutionalized people, and many neighbors don’t even know it.

“It’s one thing I would ask folks who finds themselves resisting this proposal, how can you be sure supportive housing isn’t already operating in your neighborhood?," Rosenthal said.

He said it’s important to design supportive housing so that it matches the fabric of the community, which leads to more neighborhood support.

Transitions is hoping to gain approval near the end of the year for its permit application, at which point construction could begin.

Executive Director White said the Bishop Street Studios alone would increase supportive housing in San Luis Obispo County by 20 percent.