Bird Rock’s Piano Building is planned to become a restaurant, though some on Community Council have concerns

The Piano Building on La Jolla Boulevard is slated to become a "chef-driven" but "family-friendly" restaurant this fall.

Bird Rock’s beloved Piano Building on the corner of La Jolla Boulevard and Bird Rock Avenue is slated to become a restaurant by the end of this year, according to an announcement at the March 2 Bird Rock Community Council meeting.

While many people were excited about the “life” the as-yet-unnamed establishment could bring to the north end of Bird Rock, others questioned some of the landscaping choices and the precedent they might set.

The owners say they plan to make only minor changes to the exterior and will primarily renovate the interior and surrounding sidewalk spaces to better accommodate restaurant use. The bulk of the interior will be a restaurant and bar, with a retail component on the Bird Rock Avenue side.

“This project centers around enhancing a Bird Rock architectural community asset along Bird Rock’s commercial corridor,” said AJ Remen of La Jolla-based architecture firm Bennett + Associates. “Part of the desire to revitalize this piece of Bird Rock architectural history is so it can fully serve its next life cycle and integrate the streetscape and part of the building’s design and function, with the necessary upgrades to the utilities to the building.”

He said the sidewalk would be renovated to improve the path of travel, accommodate outdoor dining and have some landscaping removed from the La Jolla Boulevard side of the property and added to the Bird Rock Avenue side.

Landscaping plans to surround the Piano Building in Bird Rock
Landscaping plans for the Piano Building in Bird Rock, as presented at the March 2 Bird Rock Community Council meeting.

“We think the building has the ability to activate the entire neighborhood. We think the architecture is really a statement for this whole stretch of retail,” said Eric Kleinbub, who owns the building with his wife, Zoe. “If people see that it’s busy and a pleasant atmosphere, I think people will start walking around there and will stimulate more of these surrounding retail spaces.”

Kleinbub said he grew up in La Jolla and moved back to the area with his wife, whom he met in San Francisco.

“When we felt like we outgrew the city, we wanted to come back here,” he said. “My parents still live in the neighborhood, and we live two blocks away from the Piano Building.”

Zoe Kleinbub said they would like the business to be “a local neighborhood restaurant. We need the neighborhood to love us … so that is who we are molding the restaurant after. People are laid-back and relaxed here, so we want to hit that mark.”

The concept is “really open,” Eric Kleinbub added, with “chef-driven but approachable and family-friendly” food. “We’re going to have a pasta dish and a burger on the menu. We are excited to say we’ve hired a Michelin-star chef a couple of weeks ago. He’s from Chicago and he makes killer burgers.” The chef was not identified.

Remen said the project is “at the finish line” in getting a building permit, and the owners hope to open this fall.

However, due to some encroachment into Maintenance Assessment District-managed areas and removal of landscaping managed by the MAD, the city of San Diego wanted the project to go before the Bird Rock Community Council for review.

MAD representative Barbara Dunbar questioned how the city could approve a project that would remove MAD landscaping and encroach into MAD areas.

“It would negatively impact the overall environment of the area; it’s aesthetically inconsistent with the other three corners on that roundabout,” she said. There also are concerns about traffic mitigation, she added.

Dunbar said the removal of MAD greenscape and street trees to create concrete “for the benefit of a private property owner” is “unacceptable.” She said the tables, chairs and umbrellas would block views for pedestrians and motorists and that preserving line of sight is “a major concern.”

MAD manager Matt Mangano said: “The big element is the encroachment into the MAD because it is a precedent that could be set. Maintenance of this space is paid for by the community annually and carried out daily. So the improvements are great, but the encroachment into the MAD is something we need to talk about as a community.”

BRCC member Don Schmidt applauded the owners for “wanting to preserve the building” but echoed the concern about “taking away green space.”

Eric Kleinbub, noting that the plans call for replacing greenery on Bird Rock Avenue, said, “We have no intentions of displacing natural beauty.”

BRCC member Craig Bender said the restaurant “is exactly what we need on that side of the boulevard. We need life, we need some modernization. … I am super excited you are keeping the building as is. Bird Rock needs more eateries.”

The Community Council did not take a vote on the project. Chairman John Newsam said, “We all love this building and love a lot of what you have planned for it, but we need to digest the information you’ve given us” before making a decision.

The Piano Building got its nickname because it once housed Schroeder Piano Co. and the “Pianos” sign was never removed. In 2015, Peter Schroeder vacated the building after pleading guilty to four counts of theft from an elder in connection with pianos placed on consignment at the store by people who were not fully paid for their sales.

Since then, the building has housed various retail stores, but when it was sold to the Kleinbubs in 2019, the building closed in preparation for renovation.

The structure was designed by William Kesling, one of a handful of Southern California architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra who defined the shape of modernist design in the mid-20th century. ◆