2016 could see another battle over building heights in San Luis Obispo

Nov 30, 2015

The long-running debate over height restrictions for the buildings that make up San Luis Obispo's historic downtown core is about to heat up again. 

Downtown San Luis Obispo's retail Chinatown development is one of several large construction projects currently underway in the city.
Credit Randol White, KCBX

Two influential groups are prepared to start pushing their preferred limits—both in opposite directions.

Major projects take years to get to the construction stage as developers satisfy various state and local regulations. Building plans are often altered as concessions are made regarding building heights.

In 2007, San Luis Obispo created an option to extend the top reaches of a structure from 50 to 60 or 75 feet, if certain requirements are met. To date, no developers have used those options, but there are a couple pre-applications that would take advantage of those allowances.

Members of the community group Save Our Downtown say these heights are simply too tall and are hoping to persuade the city to scale back its current limits.

David Brody taught architecture and city planning at Cal Poly and now focuses his efforts on maintaining the downtown's historic feel. He says the ability to see surrounding mountains within a core downtown that stretches for several blocks in every direction is unique to San Luis Obispo.

"I call it the best downtown of a small town in the USA," said Brody. "And that is so different from most places that we've got to grab onto it and preserve it in the best possible way."

Save Our Downtown's leader Jamie Lopes says the city isn't meeting its own guidelines for maintaining the downtown's historic feeling.

"Our group would like to see the city lower the height limit to the city's current design guidelines, and that is being ignored project after by project," said Lopes.

Charlene Rosales with the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce says her group is a strong proponent of increasing building heights where it's appropriate. Her organization is creating a volunteer task force to look at the best avenue forward.

"What we would like to see is a way to be able to achieve that so that we can get the infill that the city has long planned for and that residents have said that they want," said Rosales. 

The city says it plans to update its zoning code sometime next year which could include addressing building heights in the downtown core.

The Chamber and Save Our Downtown both plan to take advantage of that process.