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Proposed Puesto plaza gets La Jolla merchants group’s support; others are uneasy

Puesto La Jolla restaurant has applied for a "placemaking pedestrian plaza" for up to five years.
Puesto La Jolla restaurant has applied for a “placemaking pedestrian plaza” that would extend use of street parking spaces for outdoor dining for up to five years.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A controversial plan facilitated by Puesto La Jolla restaurant to extend the outdoor dining area on the parking spaces outside its Wall Street location for up to five years has been making the rounds to La Jolla’s community planning groups and will continue to do so this week.

So far, it has been presented — with the applicants or discussed without them — to the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance Committee, La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee, La Jolla Village Merchants Association and Enhance La Jolla. Thus far, only LJVMA has voted to support the proposal.

Puesto La Jolla restaurant in The Village has applied for a coastal development permit that would keep its current outdoor dining area, built on the parking spaces outside Puesto’s Wall Street location down to Herschel Avenue, as a “placemaking pedestrian plaza” for up to five years.

Puesto management has applied for a coastal development permit that would keep the current outdoor dining area as a “placemaking pedestrian plaza” for community use. San Diego city representatives said they could not disclose when a decision is expected on the permit.

According to project details described by the San Diego Development Services Department, the plan includes “a 1,278-square-foot deck that covers nine existing angled parking spaces in the public right of way at 1026 and 1044 Wall St.,” a 0.63-acre site.

The 1026 Wall St. address is Puesto’s; 1044 Wall St. is the site of Marisi Italiano, a restaurant under construction and owned by Puesto.

A pedestrian plaza, also known as a parklet, is a temporary structure built over parking and other public spaces.

Placemaking is the “temporary use of public right of way and private property that activates streetscapes by enhancing the pedestrian experience and providing neighborhood-serving activities,” according to a city informational bulletin.

During the April 14 LJVMA meeting, Executive Director Jodi Rudick said Puesto leadership — specifically brothers Eric and Alex Adler, who own the restaurant — are “truly visionary” and that the plan would “create an active and vibrant community.”

The Adlers said the plaza would be for community use, not just Puesto customers, but that Puesto would handle the insurance and maintenance.

When a question was raised as to how the public would know it is for community use, architect Marie Biaggi said signs would be posted.

Steve Hadley, representing the office of City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said Puesto management was being “very brave” because “we are basing this on what was an emergency order [to permit parklets during the COVID-19 pandemic] and seeing how much will stick. They are probably the first in the city, the test case. There is the good and the bad that goes with this.”

A motion to have LJVMA send a letter to the city supporting the five-year permit extension passed unanimously.

As for the fear expressed by some community planning leaders that approval of the permit would set a precedent and prompt other restaurants to do the same, Rudick said: “Their permit does not permit every restaurant in town from making their parklets permanent. This is a specific conversation as to what Puesto has done.”

But at the April 13 DPR Committee meeting, trustee Diane Kane called the proposal “highly problematic” for the likelihood of a precedent. Further, she said the city “can’t [approve] the permits they are requesting in the coastal zone, and even if they could, it doesn’t comply with the Village PDO [Planned District Ordinance].”

“There is no immediate requirement to grant a five-year extension of a structure that is taking up parking spaces in The Village,” she added. “What I’m hearing is that any outdoor dining will be allowed to proceed through the summer, and most likely to the end of the year. There is no need … for a five-year extension at this point.”

DPR trustee Angeles Liera argued that Puesto has “already eaten up a lot of the sidewalk” and “if we are going to bring the restaurants further into downtown La Jolla streets, I would have real problems with that.”

The committee did not vote on the permit extension, as the item was not on the agenda, but several members agreed with allowing the current structure through the pandemic but not beyond.

At the LJPDO meeting April 12, the opinion also was voiced that the proposal violates regulations in the PDO. The committee did not vote on the proposal but asked its members to go to their parent organizations and gather feedback.

Larger plans?

Independent of a possible precedent, Kane had questions about how the placemaking plaza would factor into the Vision La Jolla master plan being developed.

The Vision La Jolla committee was assembled by Kane. Its chairman is La Jolla architect Andy Fotsch. Other members represent the real estate, commercial and engineering realms.

The master plan it is developing would look at streetscape designs, urban links, density regulations for development, commercial needs in The Village and other elements. Members of the committee said they expect plans to be revealed in coming months.

One of the ideas in the Vision La Jolla plan is to close Wall Street to vehicles between Girard and Herschel avenues. The idea has circulated among planning groups for years but has been revived with Vision La Jolla and the placemaking proposal. Some say the plaza effort could be the “guinea pig” for how a larger street closure would work.

One of the ideas in the Vision La Jolla plan is to close Wall Street to vehicles between Girard and Herschel avenues.
One of the ideas in the Vision La Jolla plan is to close Wall Street to vehicles between Girard and Herschel avenues.
(Bing Maps / La Jolla Light)

Fotsch, who also is on the LJVMA board and is chairman of the La Jolla Shores Permit Review Committee, told LJVMA that “I’m researching what it would take to close Wall Street from Girard to Herschel for pedestrians. It is just a research exercise at this point to see what is involved, but we have seen a lot of success with that throughout the city.”

He noted Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla Shores, which is closed to cars between El Paseo Grande and Calle de la Plata so restaurants can place tables and chairs there; the Gaslamp Promenade project in downtown San Diego to close Fifth Avenue between L Street and Broadway to create eight plazas; and Piazza della Famiglia in Little Italy, which is a pedestrian plaza with tables and chairs for public use.

Should Wall Street close, Fotsch said the space could be used by the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library for outdoor concerts, by gyms for outdoor classes and by restaurants for outdoor dining, in a way that connects to the main retail area of Girard Avenue.

“The question is, do we support the idea of closing Wall Street to create a pedestrian experience?” he posed. “Not to take any action today, just to get the ball rolling, create conceptual drawings.”

A motion to authorize Fotsch to continue to research what it would take to close Wall Street passed unanimously.

LJVMA President Cody Decker said the idea “makes The Village feel more like a village. It encourages people to walk around, see what’s going on in town and enjoy what we have.”

The possible Wall Street closure previously was explored by the La Jolla Community Foundation.

At the April 15 Enhance La Jolla meeting, Community Foundation member and La Jolla Light President and General Manager Phyllis Pfeiffer said the closure of Wall Street was being considered as part of a comprehensive streetscape plan.

“When the group of architects we hired to do the streetscape plan got together, one of the first discussions they had was to close Wall Street,” she said. “We steered them away from that, in large part because we [didn’t want] the first project out of the gate to be mired in the controversy of giving up parking spaces in La Jolla.”

However, she said, if the idea to close Wall Street generates community support, she would welcome a presentation and more information on it.

The parking question

Rudick acknowledged that with new ideas such as those for Wall Street, “it always starts with parking.” She said she wants to change the narrative.

“I understand that there are certain people who think they are entitled to park on the street, in front of their favorite store, but if you look at the greatest cities in the world, that is not how they are designed,” she said.

Rudick said “we have the ability to take the parking that is removed and turn it into angled parking somewhere else. We also have an adjacent parking garage … that is open to the public. There is also a valet permit fronting La Plaza La Jolla. We are in a perfect scenario to mitigate parking concerns. … I just don’t want every conversation to be about parking.”

Hadley said different city departments will need to review any proposal that comes forward.

The Puesto plan will go before the DPR Committee on Tuesday, April 20, and the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board on Wednesday, April 21. Down the line, it will go before the La Jolla Community Planning Association. ◆