Controversial three-story building approved

The train has left the station for a controversial mixed-use Bird Rock development project combining retail and residential uses in three stories on a corner lot.

The city Planning Commission voted 4-0, with two members absent and La Jolla architect Tim Golba recusing himself because of past involvement with the project while president of La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA), in favor of Bird Rock Station on July 17.

Bird Rock Station proposes construction of a 20,507-square-foot, three-story, mixed-use development consisting of 11 residential condominium units and seven commercial units, including two levels of underground parking and a loading area on the 0.37-acre site at the corner of Bird Rock Avenue and La Jolla Boulevard. The ground-level retail development is proposed to be a gourmet grocery store/deli, though opponents of the development fear it could one day be turned into restaurant use with its attendant additional parking needs.

In sanctioning the project, commissioners accepted a Coastal Development Permit, a Site Development Permit, a Planned Development Permit and a Tentative Map for it.

Twice continued by the Planning Commission, Bird Rock Station was voted down 7-4-1 June 5 by LJCPA on grounds it would provide insufficient public benefit to justify allowing two exceptions to the Bird Rock’s Planned District Ordinance (PDO), its blueprint for commercial development. Those exceptions are a third story and street access to the project’s underground parking from Bird Rock Avenue rather than an alley behind the project site.

La Jollans spoke for and against the project July 17, but there were more speaker slips in opposition.

Commissioners asked Bird Rock Community Council president Joe La Cava why the community favored two rather than three stories of development within its PDO. “Two stories creates a different dynamic in the neighborhood than three stories,” answered La Cava. “When you have three stories, it creates a lower ceiling on the retail space, making it less functional and attractive, and also reduces your ability to create variety in the streetscaping of the building.”

Jim Fitzgerald, an LJCPA trustee, said the two-story provision in the PDO is as relevant today as it was when it was first drafted years ago. He also noted there was a “commonality” among the “laundry list” of public benefits touted by the developers for their Bird Rock Station project. “Not one of those benefits requires a third story,” Fitzgerald pointed out.

Fitzgerald contended approval of a third story for this project would be precedent-setting. “If you approve a third story today, you’re going to be setting a terrible precedent making at least part of the PDO effectively unenforceable.

“This precedent seeks to overturn 20 years’ worth of experience and history and goes against the overwhelming wishes of the community.”

Eric Naslund, Planning Commission vice chair, said he was faced with a conundrum in ruling on the Bird Rock Station project. He agreed the project could be precedent-setting, which could be dangerous. But he also felt the three-story design was less “boxy and imposing” than the two-story design.

“If you set aside the issue of precedence,” said Naslund, “as an architect, I believe you have a far more articulated building with three stories than with two, though I think at two-story building could be reasonably articulated. With three stories you have a better project, at least in terms of its physical presence, appearance and the way it touches and interacts with the public right-of-way, which is of utmost importance to me.”

City staffer Morris Dye rendered his opinion about the validity of public fears that approving this third-story development would open the floodgates to similar projects being built throughout La Jolla. “There’s some concern there would be an ability to have three stories elsewhere in the community without a process,” Dye said, “which isn’t the case. They would have to come through the (planning review) process to deviate, each project would be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

Commissioner Dennis Otsuji made the motion to approve Bird Rock Station and all of its attendant administrative permits.

“I always look for balance of the project itself from a site vantage point, how the building is placed on the site and its openness to the public,” he said, “and how the public is able to flow fluently through it. On the architectural side, I always look at the articulation of the building, how it is broken up and the integration of the architectural element to the site itself. This project would add great value to the existing streetscape.”

Commissioner Gil Ontai amended the motion for approving the project to include a provision to screen a proposed roofdeck on the upper-story condos to protect the privacy of single-family neighbors located within view of the project site.