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Midterms 2018: San Luis Obispo mayoral race

In the city of San Luis Obispo, three candidates appear on the ballot for mayor: Heidi Harmon, Keith Gurnee, and Donald Hedrick.

KCBX News contributor Menaka Wilhelm invited all three candidates into our studios. Donald Hedrick did not respond to our requests, but Heidi Harmon and Keith Gurnee both came in to discuss their vision for San Luis Obispo in the coming decades.

Listen to their conversations at the audio link and read more of their responses below. These interviews have been edited for time and clarity.

Heidi Harmon

Menaka Wilhelm: As current mayor, you probably know better than anyone that a two-year term is a blink of an eye in terms of a city's lifespan. But the work you do could have an impact far down the line. So, what would you like to see SLO look like in 10 or 20 years?

Heidi Harmon: That's a great question. And you're absolutely right, two years is a very short time, but we've done a lot that I'm proud of in that short amount of time.

In the coming years, I hope that San Luis Obispo is a diverse, lively, sustainable, vital place. I hope that people who live here really love being here, and feel like they're a part of something bigger than themselves, and that people that go to school here and visit here feel welcome and excited to be here.

Wilhelm: How do you plan to realize that vision?

Harmon: Well, one of the things we've done that I'm the most proud of is that the city of San Luis Obispo just committed to the most ambitious carbon neutrality goal of any city in the United States.

And while this is economically and morally the right thing to do in light of our changing climate, it's also going to be a huge innovation, entrepreneurial and economic engine for our local community.

So lots of students, for example, coming out of Cal Poly and Cuesta Community College may be partnering and starting businesses aiming to solve some of these problems, especially as we transition away from antiquated fuels into the renewable energy future that we need.

Wilhelm: Let's talk about housing. How will you balance the tension of maintaining San Luis Obispo’s unique character with building enough housing?

Harmon: In the previous decades there's been almost no growth, very slow to no growth. And the result of that is that — and that's not just for San Luis Obispo that's up and down the state of California — is a lack of housing.

The state legislature has come down with some pieces of legislation that take away a lot of local control in the effort to create more housing. So we know that we have to do that and we also know that we have to maintain what's special about San Luis Obispo.

Luckily we have this amazing open space green belt that is basically a moat around the city, and it's a protection against sprawl and it's a protection against overdevelopment. There are other communities, like Santa Barbara, who have grown up into their hills and we don't want to do that here.

So one of the solutions is more density, probably in the downtown where people are hopefully closer to where they're working and closer to public transportation and also looking at more creative ways to house people. I'm trying to create some excitement around communal housing, which I’m a big fan of, so that people can move forward with those projects.

Wilhelm: What's your plan for increasing student housing at Cal Poly?

Harmon: Well, it's actually Cal Poly's plan. At full build out, which is aiming at 2035, they are going to have 60 to 65 percent of all students on campus. And so myself and my colleagues and the staff we've definitely been partnering and pressuring Cal Poly to move in that direction. They know that that the community is concerned about the impact of students, especially in terms of affordability.

So they're moving in the right direction. They have an additional 800 beds this year and you're already seeing it in the neighborhoods — more ‘For Rent’ signs. Rents are dropping already and we're hoping that it continues in that direction.

But I would also say that it's not just about so-called ‘putting Cal Poly students on campus.’ It's really about creating housing that is meaningful and engaging and also affordable for the students. So I'm hopeful that when Cal Poly is working on its build-out that it will keep all of those things in mind as well.

Wilhelm: In terms of future projects, what will we expect to see come online that you have decided as mayor?

Harmon: So there's two developments, one is called Avila Ranch and one is called San Luis Ranch and they're aiming to address working people in San Luis Obispo.

In the county, the city of San Luis Obispo is the job center. We have about 45 percent of all the jobs in the county here and we are trying to create housing that those working people can afford to purchase so that they can live where they're working. And that's about creating better communities.

That's also about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and housing affordability.

Our average house price, I think, is pushing up towards $800,000. We're hoping to have things coming online in these projects that will be significantly less. Some of them will still be expensive — it's an expensive place to live — but they will hopefully be significantly less.

Wilhelm: But I know some people have concerns about traffic with those developments — how will you handle that?

Harmon: Well, we do extensive studies before we say yes to development. And developers have to pay their fair share of infrastructure improvements. So, for example, in the San Luis Ranch project there are multiple infrastructure improvements that will have to go in before they even put one shovel in the ground.

The big piece that they're responsible for is their fair share of the Prado overpass. We're grateful to have the opportunity to partner with that development and also with Caltrans. Otherwise, you know, the chances of that getting built would be remote. These are incredibly expensive projects.

We have a lot of traffic already — 30,000 trips are coming in and out of the city every day, and so that's another thing that we're trying to address.

The people of this community have said over and over again that they are desperate for housing, so we are listening to them and trying to make that happen to the best of our ability.

Wilhelm: If we go back to the very beginning, what made you first want to be mayor?

Harmon: Well, it was climate change that inspired me to get into politics. I have a daughter who is about to be 25, and another kid who's 23. And when they were about half as old is when my understanding around climate change became clear and I realized that their lives were at stake.

So I felt like I needed to do everything I could to be part of that solution. Which is why I'm especially excited and proud of our carbon neutrality goal.

Then in 2016, we had grown really strong positive progressive movement here, mostly around the campaign of Bernie Sanders. After the election process — which a lot of people were concerned and frustrated about — I really wanted to present people with an option of a candidate to get behind and show people that we are not we can't just give up. We have to keep doing the work.

So I decided to run for mayor and was lucky enough to win by 46 votes.

Wilhelm: Is there anything else that you want to point out about your campaign or your plans?

Harmon: I would just invite people to see that we've done a lot of great work over the last couple of years and that also to be mindful and thoughtful about thinking about who you're voting for, even if there's been one vote, let's say, that isn't resonating for you. Really think about that in the context of all the other work that we've done and have to do. And also the style of leadership.

Also we just want to remind people that exclusive of maybe one small project, all the projects that you're seeing going up right now — every single one was approved by prior counsels.

One thing I keep hearing is that I'm responsible for the hotels downtown and taking away parking and these big projects. And those were all approved before, some of them over a decade ago. They're all coming online at once because the economy is kind of coming back, but all the development that you're seeing now did not happen under my tenure.

Keith Gurnee

Menaka Wilhelm: So first, what experience will you draw on if you win this race?

Keith Gurnee: Well, I was the first and only Cal Poly student ever elected to the city council, so I served almost seven years on the council a number of years ago. I went on to a career in city and regional planning and urban design for about forty years.

I worked up and down the state of California, trying to help local governments with such things as downtown revitalization, park and recreation facilities, open space preservation. I think that will be a very valuable experience to bring to the office of mayor.

Wilhelm: What do you hope San Luis Obispo looks like in 10 or 20 years?

Gurnee: I hope it looks very much like it does today, to tell you the truth.

There's 2000 residential units in the hopper waiting to be built that have been approved by this and previous city councils — so there is going to be some change. But I'm determined to make whatever changes do occur keep in character with the type of small-town flavor that we have.

Wilhelm: And how will you realize that vision?

Gurnee: Well I think we need to take another look at the land use and circulation element, given the changes in state laws that have occurred to remove local control and local discretion reviewing and approving projects.

But you know, the building that was just erected in our downtown at the corner of Higuera and Santa Rosa the Bank of America building — that's really in character with our community instead of the 75 foot tall buildings that the council recently embraced in approving the zoning ordinance update. I think that would destroy the character of our town.

Wilhelm: So if we do focus on housing, what’s your plan for student housing at Cal Poly?

Gurnee: Well I think when the city needs to get much more proactive in working with Cal Poly. I think we need to really strengthen the relationship with the administration.

The increase in enrollment and the amount of students that are already there — I mean, I've been on campus a number of times during this election. The students are very concerned that the university is getting too big. But the the board of directors of the CSU system wants to expand enrollment by another 20 percent, and dropping that on our current housing crisis is just unacceptable.

So if they're going to increase any enrollment, it has to occur on campus. I think they ought to be planning for accommodating far more students on campus than in the community and freeing up some of the housing that's in the community for working people in the middle class and within the wider community.

Wilhelm: How do you plan to balance the tension of maintaining San Luis Obispo's character with providing enough housing for its residents?

Gurnee: Well, like I say there's 2000 units in the pipeline waiting to be built. It's going to probably be ten years worth of absorption to fully build out those those projects. I just want to make sure that there's housing in those projects that can appeal and remain a source of housing for working people in San Luis Obispo.

Wilhelm:What kind of housing would that be?

Gurnee: Well, it’s what is called workforce housing. Smaller houses on smaller pieces of property that can be more affordable for people who work in the community. But also have some resale controls on those to make sure that they remain a resource of housing for working people in San Luis Obispo.

Wilhelm: And then if we go back all the way to the very beginning, why did you first want to get involved with local government?

Gurnee: Oh, these were heady times in the 1970s. When I got elected, I was 23 years old at the time and you had to be 21 years old to vote — my wife was too young to vote for me! But we had the Vietnam war going on, we had the civil rights movement, the birth of the environmental movement and I became very activated by that time in our history.

Wilhelm: Is there anything else that you'd like to mention?

Gurnee: You know, I made a pledge to the City Council about a month ago to try to stay above the fray and run a positive campaign and to abide by the civility resolution, which I have done.

But it seems to have been an invitation for my opposition to really throw abuse my way and I have asked the current mayor to stay above the fray with me. I hoped she would. She hasn't yet, but I hope she comes around and decides to keep this campaign positive.

But there's one thing that really kind of disturbs me. I've talked to some of the developers of these projects that have tried to meet with the mayor. The mayor always refers them to Nick Andre, who's the leader of the new progressive movement here, saying that she really doesn’t understand planning.

And what that means is we have somebody who is not an elected representative essentially making decisions for the elected official. I think that's dangerous.

Editor’s note: Regarding Gurnee’s statements alleging that Harmon relies on Nick Andre with SLO progressives to make decisions, Heidi Harmon’s campaign responded to KCBX saying that the allegation is, "blatantly false. That has never happened, Nick has no background in planning so the allegation doesn't make sense.”

KCBX also reached out to Nick Andre, who responded that he’s never advised Harmon on planning matters, and was unaware of Gurnee’s allegations.