Planners recommend zoning changes

ATASCADERO — At a meeting Tuesday evening the Atascadero Planning Commission took one small step toward making the downtown area pedestrian-friendly and attractive for businesses looking to develop retail, restaurant, service and entertainment outlets in the area.

The board voted unanimously to recommended changes to the City’s zoning code  — changes that the Atascadero City Council will consider at a future meeting. As recommended by City staff, the changes will require any developer looking to open an office or medical building in the downtown zone to apply for a conditional use permit, which would have to be approved by the planning commission. The changes will also disallow new residential developments on the ground floor in the northeast portion of downtown near the National Guard Armory, which were previously allowed and remove requirements for new businesses on East Mall to have a 20-foot setback from the sidewalk in addition to the 20-foot right-of-way that exists in order to preserve the “parkway” feel, Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore said.

Similar ideas were pitched to the commission back in 2015 but were deemed too harsh after receiving feedback from business owners in the area. However, Dunsmore said that the ideas go all the way back to the year 2000 when they were included as part of the City’s Downtown Revitalization Plan to “build a place that encouraged pedestrian activity and orientation.”

“Fast forward 17,18, 19 years and we still have a long way go in that arena,” Dunsmore said. “Back when these policies were created, the downtown, however, was a very different place — it was very desolate, the Carlton Hotel had not be redone, there were a lot of vacancies around town, it was a very different place.”

Since then, Dunsmore said that several elements of the revitalization plan have been implemented such as the Lewis Avenue Bridge, the pedestrian Bridge over Atascadero Creek, the new downtown parking lot and more, and commercial developers are starting to take notice and express interest.

According to Dunsmore, there hasn’t been a lot available for a new business on East Mall for more than 20 years, but thanks to the pending tax sale of two properties, that could soon be changing.

“Finally they’re coming available and finally now there’s a time when we want to be able to have, as a community, a little bit of a say as to how those develop,” Dunsmore said. “It’s really neat to see some of these cornerstone things come together and that was all done really to get the economic vitality going.”

There has been much controversy over the dental and medical offices surrounding Sunken Gardens, with some accusing the businesses of holding back economic development in the area by refusing to move. However, Dunsmore said that the new rules are not designed to get rid of those types of land uses, which would be grandfathered in and would be able to remain open in the downtown area, even in the event that the business is sold.

“Those offices are actually in a great place, they’re where they need to be because they’re between the junior high and the high school,” Dunsmore said. “They’re in a location that serves the community. It’s not saying that we want those to go away, go somewhere else. But what we want to do is when we have new vacancies, we have opportunities to come in, we want to incentivize the right land uses to come in and fill in those spaces.”

To the contrary, Dunsmore said that current zoning codes encourage offices to located downtown and not on Morro Road for instance where they would be subject to zoning requirements that they add more parking and adhere to more stringent development standards. 

“Really the goal is, keep the incentives focused on the desired uses the General Plan calls for in the downtown area,” he said. “That’s the restaurants, the retail, the microbreweries, the personal services, indoor recreation, entertainment… things that are really consistent with that General Plan and allow other uses where they’re appropriate too because we want the jobs, we want the people working downtown. Offices are really key to that, but should they be on the ground floor facing the park? Should they be on the ground floor facing Entrada and Traffic Way? That’s really the question.”

Under the new zoning rules, new offices could still locate in the downtown area, but they would have to apply for a conditional use permit and undergo a planning commission review process and nothing much would change for existing offices.

“Any office that’s on the ground floor today could remain indefinitely,” Dunsmore said. “In fact, they could change owners, they can sell to a new owner and a new office can come into that location. That wouldn’t be affected by this policy shift.”

Many of the property owners and medical professionals who work around the Sunken Gardens spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and more than one reminded the board that the costs to move dental offices and other types of medical buildings can be prohibitively high.

“I see the intention here and I really like it, I like the mixed use and I like the diversity,” said Dr. Matthew Coons. “I just want to reiterate quickly the huge cost to rent or build a dentist office. It’s very expensive. The biggest cost for any dentist is the location and the equipment… A dental office is one of the most expensive businesses to relocate or to build from the ground up. Even more than a medical office and much, much more than a restaurant to put it in perspective.”

Commissioner Ryan Betz said that he liked staff’s proposed approach because it balances the needs of existing business owners with the need to expand the economic future of the downtown area.

“I was looking for balance,” he said. “What kind of balance can we push the downtown into? A more healthy vibrant downtown.”

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