La Jolla Then and Now: The community’s relationship with the city of San Diego, 1920s vs. 2020s

The Arcade Building on Girard Avenue in La Jolla was constructed in the 1920s.
The Arcade Building on Girard Avenue, which was constructed in the 1920s, once provided a waiting area for people taking the train in and out of La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

As the world tries to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and ventures into this century’s decade of the ‘20s, the La Jolla Light takes a look back at what the ‘20s looked like the last time around in La Jolla and what they look like now.

La Jolla’s relationship with the city of San Diego has evolved quite a bit over the past hundred years.

In the 1920s, one could describe it as a long-distance relationship, with minimal interaction beyond basic necessities such as roads and water.

In the 2020s, it could be described as a love/hate relationship, with the city and La Jolla — one of its most well-known communities — needing each other but both expressing some level of dissatisfaction with what the other brings to the table.

In the 1920s, La Jolla — limited largely by geography and primitive modes of transportation — was somewhat isolated from downtown San Diego and eastern San Diego County, according to La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten.

Getting to La Jolla

“Because of the topography, it was hard to reach by automobile, which was the fashionable way to travel by that time,” Olten said. “If you didn’t have a car, you had to take a horse and buggy and would go to The Cove for a picnic and spend the day.”

One of the big problems with living in La Jolla in the early 20th century was the limited amount of fresh water, Olten said. In the 1920s, the city signed a contract with a water supplier that was officially allowed to pump fresh water into La Jolla.

La Jolla’s isolated nature changed when the city established a safe and consistent train system.

“The first trains were introduced in the 1890s, but they would run off the track,” Olten said. “They certainly weren’t the trains that we think of today. It was more like an engine with cars tied to it.

“The electric trolley system took shape in 1925, and that was a reliable source of transportation between San Diego and La Jolla until the 1940s [when the trolley line was disconnected].”

This La Jolla trolley terminal was located in The Village in the 1920s.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)

La Jolla’s Arcade Building, which still stands on Girard Avenue, was constructed in the 1920s to provide a place to quickly hop on the trolley that rolled through The Village.

Local identity

The laws that governed San Diego extended into La Jolla, as did its police force and street work, but La Jolla was otherwise its own community.

“La Jolla has been vigilant over the years to retain its identity,” Olten said. “We want to keep our ZIP code and keep La Jolla La Jolla and not have it absorbed. The one thing that saves it is the topography and geographic location in that it has always been its own entity. No one is going to knock down Soledad Mountain.”

As subdivisions started forming, such as La Jolla Shores and the Muirlands and Hermosa areas, more and more housing was developed. But the process to build a house was nothing compared with today.

“There were requirements in place for developers, such as providing access to water, a street system and sidewalk, but as far as individuals wanting to build houses, it was way less complicated than it is now,” Olten said.

The relative lack of regulations allowed “freedom to create more aesthetically oriented buildings than what happens now,” she said.

Community planning

Today, development and many other types of changes in La Jolla go through an extensive process involving community planning and advisory groups.

At the top of the local review chain is the La Jolla Community Planning Association, which has several subcommittees that meet monthly to review certain projects in their respective purviews, for example, the Traffic & Transportation Board and the Planned District Ordinance Committee. The Development Permit Review Committee, which reviews all discretionary permits for development in La Jolla outside of La Jolla Shores, meets twice a month.

Often, the subcommittees’ findings are listed on the Community Planning Association board’s consent agenda for approval without discussion. Otherwise, projects have a full presentation, with a discussion and vote by LJCPA. The findings then proceed to the city for consideration.

Some planning groups focus on La Jolla’s parks and beaches, the Recreation Center, Bird Rock and La Jolla Shores. There also are the La Jolla Village Merchants Association, the La Jolla Town Council and Enhance La Jolla, a management group that oversees La Jolla’s Maintenance Assessment District.

A La Jolla Community Planning Association flow chart shows how a project must be reviewed before it can go before the city.
A La Jolla Community Planning Association flow chart shows how a project must be reviewed before it can go before the city of San Diego.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Community Planning Association)

LJCPA has the ability to appeal certain decisions when the city’s findings are in conflict with the local board’s determination. But that is where things have gotten messy.

“Certain staffers have been cooperative, and that has been really good,” said LJCPA President Diane Kane. “The bad part is we have had numerous appeals that have been rejected, as there are decision-makers up the food chain that have not been helpful.”

Some have even criticized the La Jolla groups. A notable example came during a San Diego Planning Commission hearing in August 2020, at which LJCPA representatives appealed permit approval for a home project in La Jolla’s Windansea area.

Commissioner Matthew Boomhower had harsh words for the local planners. “Frankly, the way the LJCPA has approached this appeal illustrates everything that is wrong with community planning groups,” he said.

The tension was thickened by the fact that in the days between hearings in which both the DPR Committee and LJCPA voted to oppose the project, city officials released a notice of decision on the plan and issued a coastal development permit, effectively approving it.

LJCPA appealed that decision to the Planning Commission, expressing concern that a proposed carport might be converted to a garage after construction and exceed the project’s allowable floor area ratio.

“We can’t deny a project because someone might do something in the future. That would set a dangerous precedent,” Commissioner Douglas Austin said.

Boomhower added that “when a project complies with the municipal code and you file an appeal
like this, it simply wastes everyone’s time and costs the applicants a ton of money.”

“It’s very hard for me to take you seriously when this is how you approach things.”

Kane, however, said that “even though they don’t always like us, they need us. There are requirements in state law regarding public outreach. Part of the question is, who is the public and how do you access them? Planning groups are the vehicle to get access to the public and get input on land-use decisions.”

City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, has been on both sides of the community/city relationship, having served in La Jolla planning groups and the City Council.

“We have a bounty of planning groups in La Jolla, which I see as an important link between city decision-makers and the community,” LaCava said. “It provides a go-to recourse when we need to get community input. They are the eyes and ears of what is going on day to day.”

San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava
San Diego Councilman Joe LaCava has been on both sides of the community/city relationship, having served in La Jolla planning groups and the City Council.

When he was a trustee in groups such as LJCPA and the Bird Rock Community Council, LaCava felt the city took those groups seriously, even when there were disagreements, he said. “I think [our former City Council representatives] all believed in communication, but that does not mean they always agreed with our findings.”

He noted that La Jolla has more active review groups than most other communities in the city.

“We are in the coastal zone, so many more projects have to go through a coastal development permit process, and that creates more activity in La Jolla than you would see elsewhere,” he said. “La Jolla is also an old community, so infrastructure that is aging needs to be replaced, and that comes before these groups.”

He said there are quarterly meetings with representatives from different advisory groups across the district. “For La Jolla, we have [representatives] from 12 organizations show up, so that is one meeting,” he said. “We combine the different communities in council District 1 into another meeting because they each only send one rep.”

“We tend to be leaders citywide even though we are a small community,” Kane said. “We are respected for our knowledge at the community planning group level, but people in other communities think we are snooty rich people.”

General fund

The city relies on La Jolla for tax revenue and the tourism industry, and “we rely on the city for municipal services such as maintenance and emergency personnel,” Olten said.

It has frustrated some community groups for years that revenue generated in a community does not necessarily stay in that community but instead goes into the city’s general fund. And when it comes to city services such as street maintenance and trash pickup, some La Jollans have expressed unhappiness.

For more than 60 years, a group known as Independent La Jolla sought secession from the city, arguing that if La Jolla were a city on its own, the tax revenue generated there would stay in the community. However, the group fizzled in 2019 amid funding issues.

Independent La Jolla member Melinda Merryweather, who is part of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches community group, said she believes there’s hope for a revival.

This concludes the La Jolla Then and Now series. The La Jolla Light thanks La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten and archivist Dana Hicks for their assistance in providing historical information.