CRP Professor Spotlight: Dr. Hemalata Dandekar

 

Newly elected chair of the City of San Luis Obispo Planning Commission Dr. Hemalata Danadekar had not participated in much community volunteer work before coming to San Luis Obispo, “Right away you get the feeling that San Luis Obispo is a well  governed city, and that there’s been some thoughtful tending to its physical form. It looks like a city that’s cared for and loved, it's palpable,” said Dandekar about what drew her to participate in the process in San Luis Obispo. “My reason for engaging in the Planning Commission and before that the Cultural Heritage Commission,” she continued, “was to see if I could use my expertise in preservation and get to know what the city is about.” Retiring last year from her full-time teaching position at Cal Poly SLO, Professor Dandekar has a robust portfolio of leadership, planning, and architecture experience. After receiving her doctorate at MIT, she taught at the University of Michigan Urban and Regional Planning Program for 22 years, and also served terms as an  Associate Vice President for Research for the University where she had oversight over the Humanities and Social Sciences, and as Director of  the Center for South and Southeast Asia.

Professor Dandekar’s combination of degrees and license in architecture and planning moved her from the University of Michigan to become Director and Professor,  School of Planning, College of Design at Arizona State University for 7 years. Moving to Cal Poly in 2009 she served as Department Head of City and Regional Planning for 7 years.  She  taught  full time there until Spring 2020. Throughout her academic career, Dr. Dandekar published numerous books on the subjects of Women and Housing, Rural-Urban Connections, and the transformation of rural economies due to the impacts of urbanization and industrialization.

Upon her initial relocation to SLO Dr. Dandekar served as a member of  the Cultural Heritage Committee. Reflecting on her time on the committee she notes, “In the four years I served, I found that the community is really engaged, and invested in its past. Something I had not realized in the other two cities I had spent a good deal of time in before.” It was this engagement with the community that resulted in her being recruited to the City’s Planning Commission. Professor Dandekar embraced the opportunity to serve because of the larger scale of projects that were coming forward and would have significant impact on the city’s future. “When you have larger subdivisions and projects, there’s a lot more information to digest.” Dr. Dandekar described, “You have to be up to speed on huge CEQA documents, and have a thorough understanding of the zoning code - you really want to be prepared and you really want to contribute  insights that perhaps others might not have.”

In describing her unique contribution to the commission Professor Dandekar mused, “I think you always have to see what your position is on a team.  Collectively on the planning commission the seven of us try to address the various elements of the project which will have various implications for the city’s wellbeing in the long term.” Hemalata, or as she is more commonly known Hema, believes she serves best on the team of the Planning Commission in providing the perspective of an architect at the project level, and as a land use planner; she’s especially attentive to the guidelines  that projects need to conform to: the site layouts, the setbacks, height restrictions, the affordable housing components. Given her research on “workforce” housing in California, she is aware of  legislation, rules, and expectations. For almost two years Danadekar served on the City of San Luis Obispo’s Land Use and Circulation (LUCE) Advisory Committee and is uniquely prepared  to evaluate the urban design of a development and how it will fit into the larger plan for the city of San Luis Obispo.

Conversations about the urban design, density, and future of San Luis Obispo have been growing for years, but have gained momentum from state level policies and legislation. As a planning commissioner Hema is well versed in the community  concern about the control that the city can have on the future growth of San Luis Obispo. Because of the lack of housing in  California the State of California is increasingly dictating what aspects of housing development, density and growth city’s can control and what they can’t. The debate over local control pertaining to the scale of development has been preempted in certain cases, because the state seeks to increase  the production of housing, and specific kinds of housing, Dr. Dandekar explained.  She went on to say, “ I think the community is concerned about the impact this   is going to have  on parking, on crowding on density - sort of the quality of life parameters that they’ve taken a long time to nurture.”

When it comes to her opinion on the direction San Luis Obispo should go, she describes, “I think that quality of life in SLO is extremely high - its relatively easy to get around, air quality is good, traffic congestion I think is manageable, although some would contest that. But it’s not a very affordable community and high rents and prices make access to housing   difficult, especially for young people. I think the new legislation is trying to break through that but it’s not clear what the impacts are going to be on the city itself. And whether it will actually solve the situation. I think producing more and different kinds of housing is the solution, but the challenge is, can we manage that growth?” She continued,“That’s a normal challenge, the new challenge is what the state is mandating, and I think the evidence is not in as yet. Some of the projects that have been developed the community was not very happy with.  They are not what the neighborhood wanted. The Planning Commission asked the developer to make changes to  the projects in areas that were in their purview so physically are conforming.” But she adds, “We cannot control the rent that the developer asks for, they can ask for huge rents and it’s not within our capacity to control that. So one exercises whatever control one has - whether it’s on the design in terms of units and size and mix or the quality of the design in terms of its connection to the historic fabric, the kind of materials used, what happens in the commercial, the mix between commercial, residential, service, industry. One tries to push and regulate towards the direction that you think is good for the city overall, but there are limits to what one can actually make happen.”

When asked about the most important vote she has ever cast on the planning commission, she describes that it is difficult to find  just one. It is a series of votes, ones that make this city more equitable and affordable to everyone who currently and who may like to live here. Professor Dandekar has spent much of her career researching, learning about, and affecting housing, “A house,” she describes, “is what makes people feel like they have a home, and a home is a representation of a commitment to a place to a community to having a sense of security and feeling safe, feeling empowered.”

Professor Dandekar retired in the Summer of 2020 and will teach part time in the City and Regional Planning Department for the next five years and continue to Chair the Planning Commission of San Luis Obispo.  She hopes to now have time for other ventures such as books and articles from research that has been languishing in her files and a second extensively revised edition of her popular Indian cookbook.

 

Written by Josie Buchanan, MCRP ‘21

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