People in Your Neighborhood: Meet architect, engineer and community volunteer Paul Benton

Editor’s Note: Welcome to La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series, which shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to editor@lajollalight.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.

After more than six years of community service, Paul Benton resigned in November from his volunteer position as chair of the Development Permit Review (DPR) committee. Benton went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned an engineering degree, and afterward headed to the University of Washington where he earned a second degree in Architecture. He is a registered professional in both fields.

The firm Alcorn & Benton Architects was created in 2010, when Benton joined forces with James Alcorn, but he has been building around town since 1987. He’s been married for 41 years to physical therapist Lorraine Benton, and they have four children, ages 29 to 40, three grandchildren and a fourth is on the way.

Where are you from?

“I was born in California and I moved to La Jolla when I was 2 years old, so I feel like I’m from here. I’m a fourth-generation San Diegan, I went and Muirlands and Children’s School when it was Scripps Elementary. I graduated from La Jolla High in 1971, and in my class there was developer Louis Beecham, surfer Rusty Preisendorfer, artist Mark Quint and dancer John Malashock.

I remember a big milestone in the mid-1960s when they said the population of La Jolla had hit 10,000. That was a big day! We always had the Christmas Parade and sporting events, the teams and all that. I grew up going to the beach, hanging out there in the summer.”

Are you a good swimmer?

“Yeah, I think so, not very fast. I tried surfing, and I’m not good at it, but I’ve been in a lot of the rough water swim events. I also worked rebuilding the WindanSea Surf Shack last year. That was my biggest contribution to the beach community so far.”

How has La Jolla changed over the years?

“It’s remarkable ... I remember when there were dirt streets, the sky was dark at night and not much was happening. Now La Jolla is a 24-hour community. There are people around that have to be recognized as part of the community, and they have to be, not just accommodated, but welcome, and the architecture environment supports that. The world is getting more crowded and we have to plan things adequately.

I remember that one of our first houses was up near UC San Diego. We were there when they decided to build UCSD and they closed Camp Matthews and built the campus, the library, and the Salk Institute about the same time. We would ride our bikes over and see the buildings ... I went through the library, the big arch building while it was under construction.”

Did that influence you to become an architect?

“I think so, witnessing all those big buildings, and construction underway, I’m sure that’s why I’m an architect now.”

What made you decide to get involved in community service?

“I think working with people in the community is fascinating. Talking to them, at different levels, I see it as educational and informative for the community, but I get so much out of it, too, because I want to be up-to-date with what’s important to the community, in terms of the public spaces and activities, as well as design — that makes me better as an architect.”

What would you like to see in La Jolla’s future?

“There’s so much community concern about preservation of the sense of La Jolla, of what makes it such a great place, and everybody has a different take on what. Is it the relationship to the environment? The wonderful climate? The Girard Avenue business hub?

The work that the merchants are doing right now is important in keeping downtown La Jolla alive, along with everything that happens on the beaches and parks, the trails, preserving the access to the coast. Those are the areas that require the most vigilance. With the historic issues, they’re doing a great job at preserving historic buildings, and if they continue, it will be a good thing.”

Are we preserving too much, too little or just right?

“We are probably on the side of preserving too much, but you have to remember that every decision is only valid for five years. I found that City staff is very good at taking a historic building and considering what’s essential about that building, and still allowing us to modify that building. A lot of people don’t know that historic designation is not a kiss of death, it’s a statement that yes, it should be preserved, but with a skillful architect, a great design, and of course, a great client (that’s very important), you can still do remarkable things. We have examples of that around town.”

How do you spend your personal time?

“I like to go sailing; I rent a boat at the bay. I used to go kayaking to The Shores and I attend St. James church. I also like to go mountain biking — there are a lot of wonderful trails just east of La Jolla, as well as in the mountains.”

Next week: Meet restaurateur Barbara Beltaire.

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