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GUEST COMMENTARY: Let’s lighten up a little! The state of the Village of La Jolla is sound, but dated

The Village’s busy retail hub, Girard Avenue, is dotted with vacant storefronts.
The Village’s busy retail hub, Girard Avenue, is dotted with vacant storefronts.
/ Ashley Mackin

• GUEST COMMENTARY:

It’s been some time since I’ve shared my opinion on what is happening commercially in the Village. I’m continually asked why there is so much retail vacancy in La Jolla, which seems to be a recurring theme the past few years.

Hopefully, the vacancy trend may be coming to an end. Our current tenant map contains less retail leasing opportunities than previous maps, with a number of the “empties” to be occupied within the next 90 days.

The retail scene

La Plaza La Jolla, the former Jack’s restaurant property at the intersection of Wall Street and Girard Avenue is, at last, getting some quality tenants. Both Tommy Bahama and Citibank have renewed their leases. A new Mexican restaurant is building out its space on the second floor of 909 Prospect St. Several tenants are vying for a ground floor space at the Merrill Lynch building, a few new tenants will be taking space on Girard between Prospect and Kline, and a new tenant is close to finalizing a transaction on Prospect between Ivanhoe and Herschel avenues.

But not every La Jolla retail property is doing well.

The former Saks Building at 1055 Wall St. continues to struggle. Its only tenant is Brooks Brothers and word is that once their lease ends (January 2018), they may be gone. Additionally, the stretch of Prospect Street off Cave Street continues its long vacant spell. Just as one new store — the Alpaca Shop — opened, an adjacent art gallery closed. This portion of Prospect, at the entrance to the Village, used to be La Jolla’s prime tourist retail market, but because these spaces have been vacant for years (attributed to the prime rent rates requested by the landlord) retail has shifted west to the intersection of Prospect Street and Girard Avenue, and then to just Girard. Girard Avenue is now La Jolla’s prime shopping street.

Office space

Despite the lack of available office space in the Village, the office market is doing remarkably well and office vacancy is trending down. Several office properties have kept up with the times, namely, La Jolla Galleria, Merrill Lynch Building and most notably The Herschel, Citibank/Tommy Bahama building. The new owners of The Herschel are renovating the property to offer a state-of the-art environment. Sadly, other Village landlords have done little to modernize, as they believe they have a captive market.

Local rules prevent new office buildings from being constructed and this, along with the various restrictions on the size of ground floor office space, has led to the shrinking Village office market. In a way, the local rules have done much to push quality retailers out of the Village, some migrating to neighboring UTC.

With the growth of Internet retail companies like Amazon, traditional retailing is changing drastically. Many brick-and-mortar stores are disappearing. Retailers of the past are being replaced by service businesses that offer a product line one cannot obtain over the Web. Some of these retail-related service industries are considered office-use by local codes. One way to get more retail customers onto the streets of La Jolla is to allow more office-like service-related users to occupy ground floor space. Every person working in the Village is a potential purchaser of retail products. Reducing the number of workers reduces the number of customers.

The restaurant business

Another trend La Jolla should capitalize on is the fact that people dine out more. The restaurant business is extremely volatile and expensive, and existing Village parking rules are major inhibitors that prevent the restaurant industry from thriving in La Jolla.

Currently, if a restaurant wants to come into the Village, it must find a location with suitable parking — or if there is no parking, find an existing restaurant that has failed but is in a spot where a food-use business existed prior to parking requirements being established, a grandfathered site.

A third way is to find suitable parking within 600 feet of the desired restaurant site and sign a reciprocal parking agreement for the required number of spaces and pay for spaces that likely will never be used.

All of this is total nonsense to me. If one eats dinner at Eddie V’s one can valet park at Eddie V’s, which has the required number of parking stalls on site. If after dinner a patron wants some gelato at Gelateria (which also has the required number of parking stalls) is that diner really supposed to get in their car and drive from Eddie V’s to the gelato store and then re-park (per Village rules)?

By the way, Eddie V’s can’t be open for lunch because the parking spots used at the dinner hour are used by office tenants at noon. Meanwhile, Alfonso’s across the street has no parking, but as it is “grandfathered,” it is open for lunch and dinner.

The solution to this dilemma is extremely simple. Get rid of restaurant parking requirements. There is an abundance of available Village parking in the evenings for every La Jolla restaurant. Almost every Village office building has on-site parking and each of the parking garages or surface lots empty out every afternoon and are mostly vacant on weekends.

Let it be up to the individual restaurant to decide if it wants to provide parking for customers. Wouldn’t it be better for diners to park wherever, walk to where they are going to eat, and then walk back to their cars? Maybe they will stop and spend a little more time in the Village sightseeing or shopping.

Price of a parking stall

Current parking rules are also causing the cost of purchasing parking stalls to increase greatly. Recently, a 7,000-square-foot-parcel under the Bank of America parking structure (on the corner of Kline and Fay) was purchased and provided the buyer ownership of the 67 parking stalls above the parcel. The cost came to about $30,000 per stall.

Last week, the new owners of 1020 Prospect St. (formerly an office building now being converted to residential) began offering 30 extra parking stalls at the cost of $100,000 plus, per stall. This is a very inflated price created only as a result of the various Village parking rules. Our rules are costing us.

Sidewalk dining limits

Another hurdle to creating a more exciting Village restaurant scene is the prohibition that curbs sidewalk dining. One of the “free” things La Jolla has to offer is sun and fresh air. Instead of prohibiting sidewalk dining, it should be a restaurant requirement. One just has to stroll down Avenida de la Playa in the Shores to see how positive sidewalk dining can be. The various restaurants are all feeding off each other and it’s very exciting. Incidentally, with the exception of Galaxy Taco, none of the other restaurants have any parking to speak of.

I’ve been leasing and selling commercial real estate in La Jolla for more than 30 years and it seems to me that, at times, all our rules are the primary cause for many of our issues. We just have to lighten up a little.