People in Your Neighborhood: Joe LaCava shares his history in community affairs


You may know Bird Rock resident and community volunteer Joe LaCava from any number of the meetings he’s attended (or chaired) over the years, or from his brief City Council candidacy, or as the Town Council-proclaimed “Mayor of La Jolla,” but did you also know he was in the movie “King Kong?” Or that he bird watches?

The civil engineer in private practice was recognized last week with a civic proclamation declaring Sept. 20, 2016 “Joe LaCava Day” in the City of San Diego. Following the announcement, City Council President Sherri Lightner said of the community booster, “He is the go-to person in La Jolla ... and in the city, now that I think about it.”

What was it like to have the City proclaim ‘Joe LaCava Day?’

“It was quite an honor and quite humbling to be singled out for a special day. It provided an opportunity for friends and family to get a better understanding of what I actually do. For the first time, it helped my mother understand what I do as a community volunteer because it was hard to describe why I go to so many meetings and why I’m involved in so many issues. … I’m a modest fellow, but it was a lot of fun.”

What issue ignited your community activism?

It’s been about a dozen years. Before that time, I concentrated on family and my work as a civil engineer. My daughters (Melanie and Valerie) were growing up and still wanted their dad to be involved in their activities or help them with homework. As they got older, I began looking for other things to do. I started volunteering at their school and about that same time, I got a call about the project that became known as Seahaus Condos.

A resident expressed concern that the project would bring 1,400 condos to Bird Rock. I thought that didn’t sound right, so I did some research and found it was going to be 140 units, not 1,400. I called the individual and explained the situation. That set off a lightbulb; here was a way to give back to the community by disseminating information so people are not confused or cynical, but more informed.

A third element was that time was also when Bird Rock’s revitalization was happening and there was talk about the roundabouts and traffic calming. Being a civil engineer, this was a natural opportunity for me to get involved.

How you become familiar with a project?

La Jolla is a very active community. We typically have over 100 new project applications every year. It can be difficult to go through all of them. I’d wait until I was contacted and then, depending on the nature of the call, I’d either point the caller in a direction toward who they should contact, or determine it would be easier to do some research on their behalf. That way, I, too, would be more informed about the project and able to provide them with a basic understanding of what the application process consists of, and they could go from there. Some of the more high profile issues, I would spend more time getting myself up-to-speed, so I could be an independent source of information.

Why did you run for City Council?

When the conversation started turning to the fact that Sherri Lighter was terming out, my involvement in community activities had expanded from Bird Rock to La Jolla to greater citywide issues, so folks thought I might be a good candidate who could step easily into the District 1 seat. … Stepping into this process a little naïve, I got a lot of support early on, but there were two other candidates who had a lot of attributions and were able to put together a stronger campaign. It seemed it would be more productive to support (candidate) Barbara Bry than to continue to run my campaign. It was not an easy decision, but I still feel good about it several months later.

How many community meetings do attend?

I took a step back this year … but in the heyday, you could find me at the La Jolla Community Planning Association and two or three subcommittee meetings a month — just to hear what was going on and what people were talking about and how people were responding to certain issues. I need to see the whole picture, so I could connect the dots between what I’m hearing at this meeting, and what I might have heard at another meeting.

Some meetings focus on narrow aspects of an issue. Too often I hear people say, ‘Well, why don’t you just do x, y or z’ and it’s because there’s another issue over here. I find you can’t solely look at land-use issues because there might be a traffic issue, or how something in the Village might impact La Jolla Shores. I want to see all the pieces because that’s the way to find solutions.

What do you do for fun?

My wife, Lorene, and I like to go to the theater, so we’re season subscribers at La Jolla Playhouse and The Old Globe. When my daughter is in town, we go bird watching. We bird watch in some of the natural areas or at the Zoo, that’s always a lot of fun. We have much family here, so we spend a lot of time with them now. That’s an important part of our lives. We also like to travel.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I am a big science fiction fan, but the thing I like to toss out at parties is that I was actually an extra in the 1970 remake of “King Kong.” They had an open call for extras in a crowd scene. Unfortunately, it’s a very dark scene, and I can’t imagine you would recognize me. It didn’t occur to me to wear something distinctive so I would pop out.

Editor’s Note: Welcome to La Jolla Light’s “People in the 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 through “People in the Neighborhood,” send the lead via e-mail to or call us at (858) 875-5950.

Up Next: We’ll introduce you to Bart Crawford.