Rec Center Reborn? Committee unveils $6 million plan to revamp La Jolla Recreation Center

The proposed transformation of La Jolla Recreation Center (middle) is shown in an artist's rendering, with Prospect Street in the front. La Jolla Presbyterian Church is located across from the Rec Center on Draper Avenue, with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego located across the Rec Center on Prospect Street.
(Courtesy Concept Rendering)

The Visioning Committee of the La Jolla Recreation Center Advisory Group (RAG) presented plans for a complete transformation of the Rec Center at its monthly meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The proposal, which encompasses four years of work, will cost about $6 million and has an estimated completion timeline of three to four years, once plans are approved and finalized.

What originally began as a quest to renovate the Rec Center’s old, non-ADA compliant playground, quickly grew to include a rehabilitation of the entire Rec Center grounds, including its historic building. The Visioning Committee (some members are also RAG board members) spoke to La Jolla Light before the presentation to share their motivation, inspiration and detailed site plans.

“We want to beautify the Rec Center, we want to bring in more programming, we want to make it the center of the La Jolla Village,” stated Visioning Committee member Lizzet Fitz Cluster of the need to overhaul all parts of the Rec Center.

Committee co-chair Jill Peters explained the plans reflect “years of research, including current trends in playgrounds, how to keep kids active, and what greening up the area would look like. Then, we realized our building needs updates and it’s really not used to its capacity.”

Fitz Cluster continued that the envisioned master plan has “looked at all angles,” considering input from all Rec Center immediate neighbors — The Bishop’s School, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, condo buildings, La Jolla Presbyterian Church, La Jolla Woman’s Club and more.

These neighbors were invited to provide feedback regarding how the Rec Center upgrades would affect them and what they would like the Rec Center to do.

“We wanted to be thoughtful and cohesive in our planning,” stated Committee member and landscape architect Jennifer Phelps, adding that the plans create a unified community center, making the Rec Center campus “the heart of The Village.”

“From the beginning, we wanted to make sure anything we did would be a positive change for the neighbors,” Peters stated. To this end, the Visioning Committee met with directors of all the local organizations, whom Peters reported were “very enthusiastic and positive.”

The Committee also held a three-day community-wide design charrette in May 2018, a brainstorming meeting for all stakeholders to gather ideas that influenced the current plans. The feedback received revealed the need for “shade, better playground equipment, seating and bathrooms,” shared Committee co-chair Alexis McCandless. Additionally, the building was closed off, she said, which informed the direction of the Rec Center redesign.

The building itself is historical, commissioned by Ellen Browning Scripps and designed by renowned Irving Gill. Built in 1915, the Rec Center building and its playground were “one of the first of their kind west of the Mississippi,” said Committee member Trace Wilson, an architect and urbanist who added that he grew up in La Jolla and attended Gillispie School, La Jolla Elementary, Muirlands Middle School and Bishop’s.

Following Scripps’ vision to give citizens a clean, safe place to congregate and speak freely, Gill designed the building to mirror the local missions and haciendas with arches and other features but, true to his modernist leanings, kept the building simple and progressive. Wilson, in drawing up the proposed Rec Center changes, told the Light he wanted very much to “bring back the history” of the building.

At the RAG meeting, Wilson showed the board and audience members (who included reps from the neighboring stakeholders, City employees and residents) historical photos of the Rec Center, along with photos of the current state of the building and grounds, as evidence for the need for a complete rehabilitation. He explained the new plans will update and expand the Center, and seek to unify the grounds.

In the past, the Rec Center underwent changes “incrementally patched together,” he continued, “which resulted in playgrounds bifurcated by basketball courts and very little shade.”

Wilson then ran through previously considered scenarios for upgrades, which were dismissed for various reasons, such as moving the basketball courts next to Draper Avenue, which would “cut off pedestrian access from the Village,” he explained.

Addressing the requests for an underground parking garage, another discarded idea, Wilson stated: “Ultimately, we wanted the Rec Center to be for the people, not cars.”

The Committee then revealed three different images of the current proposal, the unveiling of which provoked much applause and murmurs of approval from the audience.

The new Rec Center, Wilson shared, would feature movement of the playgrounds close together, movement of the basketball courts back toward the tennis courts, the renovation of the building, and a taking over of a portion of Cuvier Street to open it up to the people, he stated.

“Currently, Cuvier is interrupted and vacated by Bishop’s,” Wilson explained. It’s owned half by Bishop’s and half by the Rec Center. The proposed plans would close the part of Cuvier adjacent the Rec Center to vehicular traffic, sharing the street with Bishop’s and using much of it for a park, a move supported by Bishop’s and community planner and civil engineer Joe LaCava of Bird Rock.

The parking displaced by the Cuvier space would not be lost, Wilson continued, gesturing to the images where the plans include changing the current parking along Prospect Street from parallel to diagonal.

This move would make the street safer, as it would slow down traffic and add more spots, increasing available parking over what presently stands around the Rec Center by 30 percent.

The plans also layer in community desires, like new bocce ball and squash courts, and incorporate shade in a “natural way, which aligns with the greening of La Jolla, helping people have that connection to nature which is so healing and rejuvenating,” Phelps said.

“The redesign is entrenched in details,” Wilson continued, “making better use of the land.”

La Jolla Recreation Center's proposed and envisioned new playground with a seascape theme reflects the committee's 'years of studying playground trends and progressive ideas in playgrounds to make our playground truly special,' said co-chair Jill Peters. These plans were announced in February 2020.
(Courtesy Concept Rendering)

Playground structures

The new playgrounds will feature custom equipment by Danish company Monstrum, which Committee co-chair McCandless explained would include ocean- and coastal-themed play structures very specific to La Jolla, with plenty of educational, whimsical and interesting points for all ages, while still being age-appropriate.

The tennis courts will remain untouched, based on feedback from court users that no changes are really needed.

As for the Rec Center building, “the historic fabric of the building will be left totally in place,” Wilson affirmed. There will, however, be renovations that connect the front to the back and make the building more open and see-through.

Additionally, the Visioning Committee plans to take advantage of every bit of space, Peters explained, and will make use of underused spaces through the addition of a two-story atrium that will provide access to the mezzanine area — currently only accessible via a steep, narrow stairway — and access to the basement.

The renovated building will even have better access to the auditorium and other Rec Center rooms from more sides, and will include ADA upgrades like an elevator and new stairs.

The plans also add family bathrooms and outdoor sinks,and move the gym to create an open foyer and kitchen space. “The proposal stays true to Ellen Browning Scripps’ progressive nature and makes use of the Center in a modern way,” Fitz Cluster said.

“This will be a modern intervention that highlights the old architecture,” Wilson agreed.

The preliminary proposed site plan for the La Jolla Recreation Center, as announced in February.
The preliminary proposed site plan for the La Jolla Recreation Center, as announced in February: A) two new bocce ball courts along Prospect Street; B) Cuvier will be vacated to create more park space; C) better shade throughout; D) a new unified playground space; E) new basketball courts.
(Courtesy Concept Rendering)

Time and money

After Wilson concluded his explanation of the plans, Visioning Committee member and La Jolla contractor Tom Grunow stepped forward to explain the projected costs and timelines.

Done in short phases to keep the building and site operational, the construction would take place over two years, he said, with two years beforehand for finalizing architectural and financial planning. The first year after breaking ground will be dedicated to the outdoor work, and the second year for the building renovations.

The outdoor work — which would encompass the site work, hardscaping and landscaping, including replacing some of the trees which are at the end of their useful life — will cost about $3 million, Grunow shared. The building enhancements and additions, some of which involve a fair amount of engineering, will cost another $3.5 million, he explained.

The Committee, in working with the City of San Diego, hopes to privately fund the plans through donations and will also look for a $3.5 million endowment for upkeep and maintenance after the renovations are completed, Wilson said, bringing the project total to about $10 million.

The Visioning Committee, which also includes architect Don Goertz, architectural historian Diane Kane, and community volunteer Mary Coakley Munk, has already received immense support from City reps.

The Light reached out to Andy Field, director of the Parks & Recreation Department, to ask if the Committee’s plans can be accomplished, and if it has the City’s support.

Field responded: “The Parks & Recreation Department welcomes community input and participation to make the Rec Center and park serve the needs of the residents. We look forward to continuing a robust conversation about the future of the facility and appreciate all of the community efforts and workshops conducted to date.”

In addition to the City, the Committee also seeks to widen its support from the larger La Jolla community.

“We want feedback to finalize plans and move forward,” Peters insisted.

When one community member, local parent Allison McCall, stood to comment that she hopes the plans will “incorporate best practices of inclusion” for all citizens, several Visioning Committee members confirmed it will continue to address concerns like these, seeking more input from parents and school principals to fine-tune the plans.

LaCava commended the Committee’s plans and its inclusion of Rec Center neighbors and patrons in the discussion. “I’m excited about the potential, and I think there’s a great change in La Jolla about how we work as a community to make things happen,” he said.

Also at the meeting were The Bishop’s School facilities director Brian Willams and facilities committee chair Gregg Buckley — both of whom have been supportive of the plans, according to the Visioning Commitee — and La Jolla Methodist Church preschool director Bridget Musante, who at the conclusion of the presentation thanked the Committee for the wealth of thought and work reflected in the proposal.

Museum of Contemporary Art director Kathryn Kanjo also attended the meeting, and later told the Light: “We look forward to these enhancements of another one of La Jolla’s community assets — the Rec Center. Following careful study, they seem to have developed a plan to phase-in thoughtful improvements with a minimum of disruption to the neighborhood.”

The Committee’s next steps are to take the proposal to the La Jolla planning groups and meet with City groups and District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry for approval, after which the plans will undergo architectural fine-tuning before fundraising and permitting begin.

“If fundraising goes as planned, we hope to break ground within two years,” Wilson stated.

“I imagine Ellen Browning Scripps being extremely excited about this direction,” Grunow said of the proposed transformation. “This project has a great potential to be a real core of The Village.”

Fitz Cluster agreed: “The plan is not just to beautify the Rec Center, but to enhance community accessibility for all generations. We want people to feel like they cannot get enough of the Rec Center.”

Interested in offering input or becoming involved? The La Jolla Recreation Center Advisory Board meets 5 p.m. third Wednesdays at the Rec Center, 615 Prospect St., La Jolla.

— For information about La Jolla Recreation Center’s activities, classes and schedule of events, call (858) 552-1658 and visit