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Renovation plan for Bird Rock’s ‘Piano Building’ continues to raise concerns over right-of-way encroachment

The owners of the "Piano Building" in Bird Rock plan to convert it to a restaurant.
The owners of the “Piano Building” in Bird Rock plan to convert it to a restaurant.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Plans to convert Bird Rock’s “Piano Building” into a restaurant are close to a final design, architects say, but there are still some sticking points keeping the Bird Rock Community Council from giving the project its blessing.

At BRCC’s March 1 meeting, AJ Remen of La Jolla-based architecture firm Bennett + Associates provided an update on the renovation and landscape plan, hoping to get an affirmative vote from the board. Instead, BRCC President John Newsam opted to schedule a walk-through of the site with board members and other residents and make a recommendation afterward.

Owners Eric and Zoe Kleinbub previously said they plan to make only minor changes to the exterior of the building at 5680 La Jolla Blvd. and primarily will renovate the interior and surrounding sidewalk space 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.

The restaurant’s name and cuisine have not been released.

Plans to convert the Piano Building in Bird Rock to a restaurant are making headway, the architect behind the project told the Bird Rock Community Council during its Sept. 7 meeting online.

Some BRCC board members have had concerns that the sidewalk work would encroach into the area managed by the Bird Rock Maintenance Assessment District. Through the MAD, property owners pay an assessment for care of Bird Rock’s public spaces beyond what the city can provide, including landscaping.

To accommodate outdoor dining options, the concrete sidewalk along La Jolla Boulevard would be removed and replaced with hardscape and planters, Remen said. One area that is currently vegetated and maintained by the MAD would be removed and replaced with hardscape.

“We want to soften the curb to provide a wider pathway [because] currently, none of that sidewalk meets accessibility requirements, so we are mitigating that,” Remen said.

MAD representative Barbara Dunbar asked about trees immediately fronting the building that cannot be removed, and how they would be preserved. Remen said no tables or chairs would be placed around the trees and that he was consulting with landscape architects on how best to care for them.

Dunbar also noted that vegetation in that area must be kept low “for the safety of pedestrians, so vehicles can see the pedestrians and pedestrians can see the vehicles.” She questioned whether umbrellas or other potential visual obstructions would be used.

Remen replied that the fence line would include bollards (short posts) to improve visibility and that liability and responsibility terms regarding the changes near the intersection had been vetted by the city of San Diego.

The Bird Rock Community Council meets March 1 online.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Nevertheless, Bird Rock resident Don Schmidt cautioned that “the board needs to really think about this. If you let this applicant [encroach into the MAD area], others in the area will want to do this. … There are restaurants here that don’t encroach on the right of way. I have an issue of giving up the public right of way. This is a biggie.”

But others said the planned restaurant would revitalize the community.

“This is a fantastic project and exactly what Bird Rock needs,” resident and architect Trace Wilson said. “It’s outdoor dining that restores an iconic building. If another developer bought this building, they probably would have torn it down and built condos. … This will draw folks back to Bird Rock. We need to create vibrancy, and I think this will be great.”

Some said they were excited by the restaurant but were concerned about how noise from it would affect the surrounding residential neighborhood.

Newsam said BRCC will make a decision shortly after the walk-through “relative to whether we would recommend any modifications to the encroachment into the MAD and write a letter from there.”

The Piano Building got its nickname because it once housed Schroeder Piano Co. and the “Pianos” sign was not 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, it was 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.

The Bird Rock Community Council next meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, likely on Zoom. Learn more at birdrockcc.org. ◆