Cal Poly SLO Proposes to Build Housing

Special to The Times

For all of the prestige Cal Poly San Luis Obispo holds as the most exclusive of the California State University campuses, the smell of manure from the school dairy still wafts across the campus on sunny days if the wind is just right.

It is a reminder that long before Cal Poly was considered a premier institution for engineering, long before it grew to 17,000 full-time students, it was known as a top cow college. It is this history that underscores the most consistent town-gown rift between Cal Poly officials and San Luis Obispo city leaders.

City Council members have waged campaigns based on Cal Poly's refusal to house its share of students, 82% of whom come from outside the Central Coast. University officials have, in turn, jealously guarded their land to protect the fields, dairy and poultry areas that helped make it a prominent agricultural university.

A proposed land swap package announced last week is expected to address the city's and university's concerns while building the largest apartment complex in San Luis Obispo County history.

The $250-million deal calls for a 2,700-bed student housing village on 27 acres of Cal Poly grazing land. In exchange, the school's agricultural college would get 1,250 acres of vineyards, open land and an equestrian center in a stunning valley on the southeast side of town.

The student village would include 850 apartments with one-, two- and four-bedroom units, 12,000 square feet of retail space, and two large parking garages. If it is completed as planned in 2006, Cal Poly will have the most on-campus housing of any of the 23 California State universities -- with 6,280 beds. (One 800-bed project under construction at Cal Poly will be the first dormitory built on campus since 1973, when the student population was 12,000.)

The proposed deal would be more than a land swap, said Cal Poly President Warren Baker: It would be a way to better serve the school's 3,700 agricultural students.

"We will be able to have a facility right in the middle of one of the richest wine-growing regions in the state," Baker said. "We are an institution dedicated to letting students learn by doing. But even our equestrian facilities have grown inadequate. This is really a boost to what we have, not a replacement."

The City Council voted unanimously to support Cal Poly's efforts this week, and a version of the project will be presented to the California State University Board of Trustees Finance Committee Tuesday. Approval from the full board could come in May.

Plans call for some apartments to be finished by fall 2005, and the entire project to be completed by fall 2006.

"The only thing I can fault them on is their timeline," said Mike Draze, a city planner. "It's a little ambitious for the pace [at which] things happen in San Luis Obispo, but it's a good project for the city."

The deal was put together by Capstone West, a division of Alabama-based Capstone Development Corp., and it would be the largest West Coast project for a company specializing in public and private student housing.

John Vawter, Capstone's coordinator for the Cal Poly project, said two ranch owners approached the company about using their Edna Valley Ranch land after another Capstone housing project in San Luis Obispo fell through. The deal calls for Capstone to buy the ranch, and then make it available to the university.

Most attractive about the ranch land to college officials is the 277 acres of mature wine grapes it contains.

The school was already working on adding a bachelor's degree in viticulture, and the vineyard could give students a hands-on lab, university leaders say. The farmland is the reason that Capstone West gets exclusive rights to put the deal together, said Larry Kelley, Cal Poly's vice president of administration and finance.

Vawter said his company will absorb all construction costs initially, with Cal Poly paying the firm on completion. Rents close to $650 per bedroom, and income from retail additions such as coffee shops and a grocery store, are expected to pay off the bonds on the project, Kelley said.

"We have been encouraging, working with, even cajoling Cal Poly to do more," said City Councilwoman Christine Mulholland, one of the most slow-growth City Council members. "I'm cautiously optimistic about this project."

But Mulholland said she worries that the two garages will only encourage students to bring more cars to town.

Housing has been so tight in San Luis Obispo in recent years that the campus has not always been able to guarantee each freshman a dormitory bed. Families complain about being priced out of neighborhoods by students willing to pile into three-bedroom homes and pay $2,000 a month in rent.

The situation also has caused grumbling from potential home buyers, because they must compete with parents who buy homes to house their students for four or five years before selling them at a profit.

"The biggest single question we get from parents is where their student will live the second year," Kelley said. "This will be one answer."

Real estate experts expect a drop in rents after the units open.

Some critics have complained in letters to the editor and on the airwaves that even with 2,700 additional beds, Cal Poly will change the small-town nature of San Luis Obispo if it continues to grow. But Kelley said the college expects to top out at 19,800 students in 2012.

Dan Krieger, a Cal Poly history professor, said the campus was once remote from a city concentrated around the San Luis Obispo Mission downtown.

There were mini-booms in building near the campus in the 1920s and '30s, and a big one for veterans after World War II, followed by apartments in the 1970s and '80s.

"Cal Poly by intention was in an isolated place," Krieger said, "because the state wanted to protect its charges from the bad influences of the town."

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