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Bird Rock gives thumbs down to form-based code

Using form-based code to revise Bird Rock’s planned district ordinance governing future commercial development could be a short-lived experiment, as residents gave thumbs down to the code as presented by a 38-28 margin.

The vote came March 20 at a community gathering of nearly 100 Bird Rockians who came to hear a final presentation on the code at Bird Rock Elementary School. The meeting included brief comments from Council President Scott Peters, who initiated the form-based code process, and a lengthy question and answer session at the end between the audience and architectural consultants Michael Stepner and Howard Blackson.

Of those who opposed moving forward with the form-based code, five said it needed more work, and 30 preferred returning to the “Bird Rock 12,” a set of 12 amendments proposed earlier to amend the existing, outdated planned district ordinance.

Form-based code is a relatively new planning procedure graphically depicting what can and can’t be allowed in commercial development. It differs from standard land-use zoning by encouraging good design or architecture, rather than regulating by restricting uses.

The form-based code would regulate each commercial parcel along La Jolla Boulevard by type, with increasing intensity and complexity working from the outer edges of the commercial zone toward the center. Three stories of development within the city-imposed 30-foot height limit would be allowed under the code, but restricted to specified locations. Any developer requesting a third story of development would be required to offer on-site civic space in exchange.

“There’s some very poor design going on,” noted architect Blackson in a powerpoint presentation March 20. “A lot of the design forms don’t match up with what you’re supposed to have here. We’re trying to protect the quality of life by putting design first.”

Blackson noted there is a dearth of civic space in Bird Rock. “There’s no town hall,” he said, “no town green, no place for everyone to meet, except these great restaurants.”

Following the March 20 meeting, Councilman Peters was pondering his options before proceeding on to the next step in the land-use revision planning process. “I have the so-called Bird Rock 12,” said Peters. “I have the Morton-Lyon, one-size-fits-all proposal for three stories. I have the public input from about 400 people participating in charettes that came up with some tangible vision about the community. We’ll try to build something around where there was agreement. We have to make some choices about what we want, go back and look at what the tradeoffs are.”

Darcy Ashley, a Bird Rock Community Council member and an opponent of the form-based code, advocated for a return to the Bird Rock 12. “There was really a lot of consensus and momentum to go forward with the Bird Rock amendments,” she said. “People were behind those. The form-based code ends up reinventing the wheel. We already have something new and different with the roundabouts. To experiment with something else that’s untested and uncertain just feels like it’s too much.”

At the March 20 meeting, Helen H. Larson explained why she thought the community wasn’t completely sold on the form-based code. “The community has a mistrust of government on this process,” she said. “It’s a charade what they’ve been given after what they’ve been promised. The community has a right to be distrustful. We do not want to repeat Seahaus (condos).”

“We’re doing everything we can to not repeat Seahaus,” replied architect Blackson.

Bird Rock Councilman Joe La Cava praised the community’s participation in the land-use planning process. “It’s really a tribute to Bird Rock how involved everybody’s been,” he said. “We have a lot of different opinions here. A lot of diversity. We’ve been able to come together in a rational way, hopefully to come to a consensus, whatever that consensus might be.”

Asked why allowing some third-story development remained in the form-based code proposal when the community is so adamantly opposed to it, architect Stepner replied: “We went through a visual preference survey and nobody mentioned third story. They mentioned they didn’t like block buildings, buildings that didn’t relate to the street, that didn’t seem to fit the character of what was designed for Bird Rock.”

Architect Beth Gaenzle expressed concern to the impact to parking, and property owner’s rights, from switching to a form-based code. “It would be an inequity forcing people to put in a public space,” she said. “It would change people’s property values through legislation that could be disputed in the courts and by the City Council.”

Regarding the Bird Rock 12, Blackson added he felt those amendments didn’t go as far as the form-based code would in updating the community’s blueprint for commercial development. “The form-based code has 10 of those amendments,” he said, “plus 32 other things. The planned district ordinance does not have no exceptions, or no variances, a big issue. The third-story aspect in the center and on the corners isn’t just a trade off for civic spaces. It also narrows the building footprint into narrower parcels, instead of big, blocky buildings. Buildings would become more like the Starbucks. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”