New Bird Rock plan includes wiggle room for three-story buildings

Those conclusions were drawn by architects Michael Stepner and Howard Blackson at a public presentation Nov. 14 following a series of meetings, including a recent four-day workshop. At the workshop, Bird Rock residents gave input on what they did and didn’t want to see in redesigning their community’s commercial center.

A first attempt at revising Bird Rock’s planned district ordinance, the community’s blueprint for commercial development, ran aground due to conflict over allowing three stories within the city-imposed 30-story height limit. At that point, City Council President Scott Peters enlisted the help of Stepner and Blackson in redefining the commercial planning process in Bird Rock. That process will now be done with form-based coding.

Unlike standard zoning, which regulates by restricting uses rather than encouraging good design or architecture, form-based coding attempts to integrate the community’s vision into land-use zoning.

Pennie Carlos, president of the Bird Rock Community Council, applauded Stepner and Blackson for their efforts in engaging the community in the process to revise commercial zoning.

“Many of us were skeptical at first, wondering if there was some type of mandate or agenda,” she said. “I can’t believe how many hours you’ve put into this process. It was a serious give-and-take process.”

Stepner said form-based coding focuses on what the community liked, rather than disliked.

“We focused on how to make density work for you,” said Blackson.

The architects’ presentation showed how Bird Rock’s commercial center could be rezoned to break up the blockiness of buildings by requiring different standards for the edges, center and middle of blocks. Blackson said the new process recommends a 24-foot height limit for frontage along La Jolla Boulevard, with a 20-foot height limit in the rear of commercial buildings, preserving the privacy of adjoining residential spaces.

One thing Bird Rock’s commercial center is lacking, said Blackson, is communal areas.

“There’s a lack of civic or public space,” he said. “You don’t have any place to stop and have a nice space where you can meet with your neighbors.”

Blackson said redesigning Bird Rock’s commercial zone would also allow for plazas, fountains and other improvements to make it more visually appealing. Visual appeal, he added, is also achieved by landscaping and improved walkways, allowing space for outdoor street dining, like that at Lupi’s restaurant on La Jolla Boulevard.

Several other recommendations were made, including:

  • Designating Bird Rock as its own sub-area and defining its business district as neighborhood commercial;
  • Eliminating stepdown first floors, allowing basements and three stories;
  • Disallowing street frontage parking, between the sidewalk and building, like the lot where the French Pastry Shop is located;
  • Eliminating the customer parking requirement for small lots;
  • Designing public spaces at Bird Rock Avenue, Forward Street and Midway where they intersect with La Jolla Boulevard;
  • Acquiring land for a public park and parking on La Jolla Boulevard; and
  • Designing high-profile entry markers for the community’s commercial area.

Among the recommendations presented by Stepner and Blackson is one urging the community to consider paid, on-street parking to offset costs of the improvements.
Members of the audience asked the architects why three stories within the 30-foot height limit was being proposed at all, when it is such an unpopular idea.

“People told us the third story was not the issue, but how it was done,” Stepner said. “It was the quality of the building and the bulk and the way it related to the street. This is a balance, a compromise. The idea is to put the right intensity in the right place.”

Those with comments on the plan can e-mail them to