Spotlight on La Jolla Rec Center: A fixture in the community amid controversy, renovation plans

Between possible changes in City Council policy, a longstanding plan to renovate the playground and an accusation of theft from its coffers, the La Jolla Rec Center at 615 Prospect St., has been in the spotlight lately.

The headlines got La Jolla Light staff thinking ... who exactly uses the Rec Center? What does it offer patrons? How does it operate?

To find out, the Light sat down with Center director Nicole Otjens and San Diego Department of Park & Rec Community Parks Deputy Director Kathy Ruiz.

By the numbers

La Jolla’s Rec Center, at 102 years old, is the “oldest Rec Center west of the Mississippi.” It was conceived of and financed by La Jolla benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps in 1915, when she lived across the street, and it was designed by famed architect Irving Gill. At the time, it was known as a community house and playground. It is the only green space with indoor/outdoor facilities open to the public for miles.

“From a general point of view, the entire community uses the recreation center,” Ruiz said. “We have programs and events geared toward seniors, children and everyone in between. We have yoga classes, sports-related programs and holiday-geared special events.”

The park grounds, which house the Rec Center, are 2.95 acres (128,502 square feet) and the Center itself is 9,100 square feet.

Otjen said there are programs that take participants as young as 18 months (with mommy-and-me class), then programs for teens, usually up to 15 years old. “After that, students tend to sign up with similar programs at their schools.

“Then, we have adult programming for those age 18 and older, and these include yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates, and a weight room that has no age cap. We have a 90-year-old who uses the weight room every now and again, he’s a really sweet guy,” she said.

“There are 8-10 events throughout the year, which see an attendance of 80-800 people, depending on the time of year and the event. “Our Spring Egg Hunt had 800 people show up this year,” Otjens said.

The Rec Center staff also oversees permits for meetings held inside the building each month, such as 10 community advisory group meetings; meetings for three Girl Scout troops; a youth church group; and weekly Toastmasters, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, among others.

Based on head counts and estimates, she said there are 600-800 adults in the facility every month. “If you include children’s activities, we have 100 children here for permitted events. If you include the outside facilities, such as the courts and playgrounds, you are talking about 2,000 adults a month, depending on the season, and maybe 2,500 kids every month,” Otjens said.

Ruiz added: “The Rec Center is used by just about every community-related group in La Jolla. It’s a hub for activity, not just for recreation, but for community-interest activities.”

Busy times

The busiest times of day are 10 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m., when the little ones are playing before pre-school, during which about 100 people cycle through. Then it gets quiet for a little while, Otjens said. Around 3:30 p.m., the after-school and after-work crowd shows up and it stays busy until about 7 p.m.

“Our ball check-outs are really popular; all you have to do is show up with a photo ID — school ID or driver’s license — to check out a ball. For some reason, the rainbow ball is really popular. People swear it bounces better, we don’t know why. Our Foosball table is also really popular. We also have a Creative Movement dance class that is really popular,” she explained.

Other classes offered include youth sports teams, babysitter training, music appreciation, gymnastics, crafting, different types of yoga, tai chi, Pilates, table tennis and Zumba.

Budgeting

When to comes to financing the day-to-day operations, Ruiz said there is a City division budget for all rec centers in that division. The La Jolla Rec Center is in Division II, which includes Pacific Beach, La Jolla and Santa Clara (Mission Bay).

“The Department and the Division have a general operating budget,” she explained. “Those funds go toward maintaining the centers, buying general supplies and staffing costs. So the La Jolla Rec Center doesn’t have its own budget. It’s budgeted in more general categories: supplies, maintenance, staff; which is spread among rec centers.

“Then there are programming fees — we offer a lot of classes for free — but those classes that do charge are part of a fee set-up. Those funds are expended out of the Rec Council and the Rec Council buys the supplies we needs for those teams — uniforms, trophies, referees, etc. Most of the programs are self-sustaining; we charge what it costs to run the program.”

Nearby Tennis Club

Just on the other side of the playground, the La Jolla Tennis Club has operated for decades in partnership with the San Diego Department of Park & Rec under a Special Use Permit (SUP). “The SUP allows them to occupy the space and they do all the maintenance and operations there,” Ruiz said. “They are required to set aside at least 20 percent of their operating time — and they do much more than that — for the general public to use the court.

“There is a nominal cost to become and member and a nominal cost to reserve a court if you are not a member. We’ve had a SUP with them for decades and we have a number of those with various non-profits throughout the City to operate tennis courts.”

In the headlines

The Rec Center, largely due to the efforts of its community advisory board, La Jolla Park & Recreation, Inc., (LJP&R) has been getting attention for more than a year. In late 2016, a plan to renovate the aging playground and make it ADA-accessible was announced, and LJP&R held a forum in December 2016 to collect ideas and set priorities. Designs, layout schemes, funding and features have been discussed at every monthly meeting since, but after one year, no action has taken place to move a plan forward. However, a group of residents is investigating the installation of a bocce ball court.

In spring 2017, former LJP&R president Cindy Greatrex stepped down, citing conflict with other board members. It would later come to light that she was accused of stealing more than $67,000 from LJP&R funds. (Read about it here)

Pertaining to Rec Councils citywide, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott issued an opinion in September stating all money generated by Rec Centers and Rec Councils is City funds and the standing procedure, in which Rec Councils collect and expend money, is in violation of City Code. She recommends that Rec Councils be eliminated as financial agents and all permit fees go directly to the City, which would dole out funds by area.

However, much of the cash in the LJP&R account comes from donations and the board is in the process of determining the balance, so it can be reserved in a separate account. LJP&R is a 501(c)3 and is allowed to keep donated funds earmarked for specific projects or the playground renovation. The City Attorney’s recommendation could be voted upon by the City Council as soon as Dec. 11.

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