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Bird Rock neighbors asked for opinions on commercial design

That was the somewhat unorthodox way urban planners Mike Stepner and Howard Blacksom kicked off a Sept. 19 workshop, the first of a series of public meetings designed to reinvent the community’s planned district ordinance governing commercial development.

Questionaires handed out to residents at the meeting ask for thoughts about exceptional, acceptable and unacceptable existing commercial development within Bird Rock’s several-block business district along La Jolla Boulevard. The questionaire asks respondents where they live and how often they visit Bird Rock’s commercial district.

Most importantly, it asks what they feel best describes the character of La Jolla Boulevard. Is it a prototypical main street with shopping, dining and other services? Is it merely a thoroughfare linking La Jolla and Pacific Beach? Is it a neighborhood center, not a traditional main street? Should it be a quiet neighborhood street?

The survey comes during a two-month, form-based planning process culminating Nov. 14 with the final presentation of a draft report to the Bird Rock Community Council. At that time, the consultants will offer their recommendations on how best to rewrite building codes redefining the community’s commercial identity.

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“There are no right or wrong answers,” said Stepner about the questionaire, which needs to be completed and mailed in no later than Tuesday, Sept. 26.

“Don’t lose heart in this process,” urged Bird Rock Community Council President Pennie McLaughlin Carlos. “The more input we give, the better.”

After questionaires are returned, Blacksom and Stepner will photograph buildings of all types cited by residents and return with them Nov. 3-6 at all-day working sessions, where residents will be encouraged to discuss what they want and don’t want in terms of aesthetic design. Architects, planners, engineers, retailers and design professionals will be on hand to help the community arrive at a consensus on what design elements are good and bad for their commercial sector.

Form-based coding is an alternative, more user-friendly method of addressing traditional land-use zoning. Blacksom called it a planning tool.

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“It’s a sensible look on habitat,” he said, “in much the same way ecologists look at natural habitat. You use graphics and code to define public spaces and create an urban design plan.”

A primary task in the rethinking of Bird Rock’s planned district ordinance will be to determine what the proper scale of commercial development should be.

“You also need to figure out the intensity of use,” said Blacksom. “The goal is to make a place that you like.”

Blacksom added that planning issues are solved by frontage and building type. “You put it all together like a pie,” he said.

How Bird Rock’s revised commercial sector will redevelop will then be a matter of natural economic forces.

“The market will determine whether restaurants come here or not,” said Stepner, who believes property owners may be persuaded to buy into the planning process. “It doesn’t force owners to do anything. But it gives property owners the opportunity to maximize use of their land that sticks to the character of the community.”

La Jolla Town Council President Glen Rasmussen asked if form-based coding could be used elsewhere in La Jolla.

“We’re seeking to provide a model that can be applied elsewhere,” replied Stepner.

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La Jolla Town Council’s new executive director, Dave Ish, felt residents’ lifestyles should figure prominently into any revision of the community’s blueprint for commercial development.

“We need to think about the butcher, the baker and the candlestickmaker,” said Ish. “Is it a bedroom community where commercial is dead during the day and only comes to life at night after work and on weekends?”

Past Bird Rock Community Council president, Cory Schmelzer, said he felt Bird Rock’s commercial character was something in between a traditional main street and a neighborhood center.

“How much of a destination do we want Bird Rock to be?” he asked. “I don’t mind people coming here from La Jolla or Pacific Beach, but I don’t think I want them driving an hour to get here.”

Many more of the community’s questions will be answered in November at the final stage of the planning process.

“Everyone will be able to put in their two cents,” said Stepner, “and then, hopefully, we’ll be able to reach some conclusions.”

Comments about the revision of Bird Rock’s planned district ordinance can be e-mailed to stepner1@pacbell.net.