Planning Commission OKs PDO deviations

Applicants seek retail waiver for townhome, commercial space projects

On Aug. 13 the San Diego Planning Commission lent its unanimous approval to two Village projects whose applicants are seeking deviations from a ground-floor retail requirement of La Jolla’s Planned District Ordinance (PDO), or blueprint for design.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to rent retail space in the Village, the issue of developers requesting deviations from the PDO — in these cases, to accommodate residential and office space — is one of growing concern, with some believing La Jolla’s PDO is long overdue for an update (read more at bit.ly/LJPDOproposal).

Silver Street Village Homes

The two-story Silver Street Village Homes project, at the corner of Silver Street and Draper Avenue, would include 18, two- to four-bedroom townhomes.

La Jollan William Berwin and his business partners are seeking a deviation from the PDO’s requirement that properties in La Jolla’s commercial district include 50 percent retail space on the ground floor.

During discussions of the project by the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) and its subcommittees, it was determined that this area of PDO Zone 3 — today comprised mainly of residential, cultural and recreational uses — is no longer viable for retail (and may have been gerrymandered to accommodate an existing retail use when the PDO was written in 1984).

Planning commissioners — impressed with the project’s Old World European design — voted 6-0 to approve a motion by commissioner Anthony Wagner to approve the project as a consent agenda item, without further discussion. The development will replace the old Silver Street letter carrier annex (which is relocating to UTC) and a veterinary hospital that has since moved down the street.

“It’s a terrific project and it’s easy to put it on consent,” Commissioner Susan Peerson said. “It will be a positive contribution to the Village of La Jolla.”

Will Cooper, who lives adjacent to the site, said he likes the design, but was “a little concerned that they’re going to be taking out several (mature) pine trees,” located on an adjacent city easement.

Cooper also recommended removing several power poles near the project and undergrounding those utility lines as part of the development, which Planning Commission Chair Tim Golba said the city approved. The issue of the trees can be broached when the project comes before the City Council for final approval, it was noted. More on the project at bit.ly/silverstreet

1111 Prospect St.

Commissioners also approved a request by the owners of the two-story, 36,485-square-foot building at the corner of Prospect Street and Herschel Avenue to increase the amount of office space allowed on the ground floor. They are seeking to bump the 25 percent allowed by the La Jolla PDO to 50 percent. Earlier this year, La Jolla’s Planned District Ordinance committee, which reviews projects for conformance to the PDO, was only willing to grant a deviation for up to 35 percent ground-floor office space.

Project representative Marcela Escobar-Eck said the building’s vast depth has made it difficult to rent for retail uses, noting the only offer the owners received in the past two years was from a T-shirt shop.

Peter Wagener, a general partner in the building, which once housed Hotel Parisi, said the inability to rent the space has nothing to do with its cost. “It has nothing to do with what we charge or don’t charge,” he said, adding he believes Prospect Street is no longer a place where people come to shop. “That area of Prospect Street doesn’t lend itself to shopping. If they shop, they go to Girard Avenue.”

The applicant proposes to maintain 75 percent of retail frontage by using the first 10 feet of each office space along the building’s iconic pedestrian plaza for retail or other pedestrian-friendly uses. Escobar-Eck said the space could be used to provide visitor information on local beaches and hikes, or to display art. She noted one potential tenant was considering adding model train exhibits to their frontage. “The intent is to have it be a space that interacts with the public and draws people in,” she said.

However, Golba said he does not think 10 feet is sufficient for such uses. “I get that it’s an old PDO (document),” he said, noting “another half dozen projects are coming down the pipeline with PDO deviation (requests),” though stressing the building and its courtyard fountain are one of the most picturesque corners in the Village. “I want to see it energized, but I’m concerned about what I’m being asked to energize it with.”

Golba said there was nothing in the applicant’s request assuring that an office tenant would use their front 10 feet for a use that complements the pedestrian plaza.

“There’s nothing on paper that assures us that it’s going to be some sort of visitor information center or anything like that,” he said. “If you’re telling me you’re going to display art in your lobby and a tourist from Nebraska can walk in and look at the art without disturbing (the office tenant), that makes me comfortable.”

Although Golba said he trusts Wagener’s intentions, the “physical limitations of 10 feet would preclude you from doing any of that,” he said. “I seriously struggle with the 10 feet. Ten feet gives me heartburn. Even if you did easels and artwork, you’re asking somebody to go sideways and shimmy along the windows to see the artwork. … As an architect we talk about drive-isles (of) 18 feet being insufficient; 10 feet for (visitor-friendly) commercial is comical. I cannot support 10 feet, I just won’t.”

Golba noted that, after three failed motions, the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) could not come to a consensus to float a recommendation for the project, though one of the motions the LJCPA proposed was to increase the front office space to a depth of 20 feet.

Although Escobar-Eck initially said her clients were willing to concede only an additional two feet of depth, planning commissioner Anthony Wagner suggested 18 feet would be more appropriate.

Escobar-Eck said her clients were amenable to a permit condition assuring commissioners’ fear of filing cabinets and secretary’s desks in the front windows aren’t realized a year after the deviation is approved.

In the end, a motion to approve a planned development permit and the deviation for 50 percent office space passed by a vote of 5-0-1 (Commissioner Peerson, whose husband works with Escobar-Eck at Atlantis Group, recused herself from the vote).

A condition was added that “the first 15 feet off the plaza would remain open to the general public and available for retail or visitor-commercial serving uses, with no physical barriers that would prohibit efficient flow through the space and no office-specific uses.”

“You could partner with the (La Jolla) Historical Society and just soar … if you put those old-time pictures of the Green Dragon Colony in there,” Golba suggested. … “I just don’t want to go by and find that that’s a giant waiting room for a real estate office.”

Escobar-Eck said the requested deviation is “permissive, but it doesn’t mean it’s mandatory. Over time, if (co-owner Peter Wagener) has offers from better tenants he’ll look to convert the space back to retail, which is allowed,” she said. “This just gives him the flexibility.”

For more information on the project, visit bit.ly/ProspectDeviation

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