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BIRD ROCK UP IN THE AIR

Bird Rock is changing. The question is, what does the community want it to be?

As the towering Seahaus condominium project and traffic-calming measures, including five roundabout traffic circles, begin to take shape, residents and merchants are grappling with the divisive question of how densely zoned Bird Rock’s business district should be.

Bird Rock’s planned district ordinance, the blueprint for development along its La Jolla Boulevard business strip, has not been updated since the early 1980s. Too long, most agree, to adequately reflect changing times and circumstances.

“We have so many changes happening in Bird Rock,” said real estate agent Trent Wagenseller. “It’s an ideal time to revisit the planned district ordinance.”

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A subcommittee of the Bird Rock Community Council of a dozen or so members is doing just that, debating what to leave alone and what can -

and should - be changed to make the La Jolla Boulevard business strip more user-friendly.

The committee is considering several proposed changes in the Bird Rock planned district ordinance, such as:

  • Dropping the condition that ground-floor space must have at least 50-percent retail to ensure mixed-use in the business district and not blocks of offices and professional services;
  • Permitting residential use on the ground floor in the front half of a lot where it hasn’t previously been allowed;
  • Allowing more density in

developments;

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  • Upping from two to three the number of stories allowed on buildings within the city’s 30-foot height limit restriction.
  • Reducing the amount of

landscaping required;

  • Decreasing from 8 feet to 5 or 6 the amount of clear passage required on sidewalks, allowing more outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants; and
  • Adding books and periodicals to the list of products and services allowed to be sold outdoors.

“Some of the reasoning behind the proposed changes is to modernize the general plan to conform to a changing community,” said Pennie Carlos, Bird Rock Community Council president. “We need to look at other community business districts and truly decide if wwant our buildings to go up three stories, a different look entirely, within the same height limit.”
Carlos cautioned against making drastic changes to the planned district ordinance, which she characterized as having the potential to cause insane density. She is skeptical that allowing three stories to be developed instead of two within the 30-foot height limit is a good idea. What might be good for developers, she said, might not be good for the community.

“We still have limited parking,” Carlos said. “A third story within the 30-foot height limit, that’s a lot of density, more traffic, schools getting crowded. That’s not necessarily what people who’ve moved in and have a stake in the community wanted. It cannot be an acceptable answer to simply say the cost of building is so high these changes need to be made for economic reasons.”

One of the biggest issues causing the most grief for everybody, Carlos said, is whether to eliminate the 50-percent requirement for retail on the ground level.

“One of the reasons the community got together is they want a neighborhood where they can buy bread and milk, go to dinner, buy a present or drop their kid off for a haircut,” said Carlos. “If you do away with the 50-percent retail requirement, what checks and balances or guarantees do we have to ensure that we have a walkable community with the kind of small-business that’s inviting as a destination? To do away with the 50-percent requirement for retail and go to market forces and let it be as it may is ridiculous.”

Bird Rock architect Mark Lyon said the community has moved ahead 25 years, but its planning document governing growth has stood still.

“It needs to be updated, corrected, refined and defined,” he said. “It needs to be tailored more to current trends in the market. This business district is competing with large shopping centers with oceans of parking that we don’t have. We need to have more flexibility for allowed uses within the planned district ordinance.”

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Lyon said restricting development to only two floors within the 30-foot height limit is needlessly hindering development, because it’s much more difficult to make a housing project feasible. He believes adding an extra story gives incentive to developers to assume the risk of improving facilities and providing the required parking.

Much of Bird Rock’s current redevelopment has been with mixed use in mind. One example is the Starbucks-anchored plaza with retail on the bottom and condos on the second floor. Other developers are contemplating similar types of developments in Bird Rock.

Another case of mixed-use redevelopment is the empty lot, formerly a construction storage area, on the corner of Bird Rock Avenue and La Jolla Boulevard.

“That will be a mixed-use facility, retail and residential,” said Lyon. “The current owner is looking to get a large national chain of some sort of high-end, boutiquey foodstore there.” Another major retailer, Longs Drugs, has plans to build a new store on the present site of the Seahaus sales office, which was once a strip mall and will be abandoned once the Seahaus project is complete.

Longs is working with the Bird Rock community to customize its proposed development to complement the business district’s new look and feel.

Lyon is encouraged by the pace and type of redevelopment going on in Bird Rock. Despite the planning and zoning hurdles to be cleared, he’s confident the community will achieve its mission of resurrecting the business district, making it a place to shop.

“I’m excited and encouraged,” he said, “that the current development under way with Seahaus and the street improvements, including parking restriping, will move Bird Rock into an exciting new phase. I’m optimistic, along with some changes we may be able to make in the planned district ordinance, that we can really create a nice community here.”

Michael Morton, chair of the Bird Rock Commmunity Council’s Planned District Ordinance Subcommittee, believes it’s absolutely essential to get the community more involved in its planning future, much like what was done with the roundabouts and other traffic-calming measures now coming to fruition.

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“We’re working to create a community consensus,” said Morton, “getting both the businessowners and the community together to get their input and create a common vision for the boulevard, that both respects the neighborhood’s wishes, and brings forward the business district’s needs and concerns. I think we can find common goals so we can accommodate both businesses and residents.”

Having a hand in shaping the Bird Rock community’s new shared vision is spurring community members to get more involved. And productive change might result from it.

“There’s now a lot of interest, a lot of debate within the community on whether the strict retail requirement should be lifted,” Morton said. “Many want the Bird Rock community zoned to make it more of a village atmosphere, rather than a strict retail strip where you have a variety of services the community needs and can support such as chiropractors, real estate agents, attorneys, doctors and dentists, businesses the community feels would best serve them, and, more importantly, that they would patronize and keep alive.”

Cory Schmelzer is a former Bird Rock Community Council president who has also been involved with the Planned District Ordinance Subcommittee. He agrees widespread community involvement is key to coming up with a revised development blueprint that everyone likes.

“Without a doubt, it’s time to revise the planned district ordinance,” said Schmelzer. “But at the end of the day, what needs to happen is that the planned district ordinance needs to be seriously reviewed and considered before Bird Rock makes any changes. "

Schmelzer agreed that some of the restrictions in place now may not be appropriate for today’s business marketplace in order to encourage healthy growth and development.

“Maybe, with the right zoning,” he said, “we can make the Bird Rock business district and the overall community just a better place to be. The most important thing for me is that we sit down and look at all the options, the benefits and drawbacks of those options.”

Schmelzer said Bird Rock is going an identity crisis.

“What do we really want Bird Rock to be?” he said. “Do we want people flying in from New York City to come to Bird Rock? Or do we just want to be a nice little quaint community? The revisions to the Planned District Ordinance should reflect our end goals for the community.”

Wagenseller believes diversity should be the key consideration in revising the planned district ordinance.

“We all want a diverse atmosphere that’s inviting for pedestrians and that’s good for business,” he said. “We want that variety for shopping, dining and services, everything from architects and interior designers to fun new restaurants. It’s an ideal little pocket of La Jolla that can be one of the most fun and diverse little shopping districts up and down the coast.”

The next 12 months will be critical for Bird Rock as it molds its vision for the community’s future.

“We want the vision to be a combination of what the residents really want,” said Wagenseller, “and how that ties in with the investments of the landlords. Long-time owners are being hindered by the planned district ordinance regarding their ability to develop.”

A public meeting on ordinance changes will be held , Sept. 14, at 6:15 p.m. at the Masonic Lodge at 5655 La Jolla Blvd.