Planning Commission approves Alzheimer’s facility on Fay Avenue in La Jolla

Compromise proposed to satisfy Planned District Ordinance retail requirement

Following its staff’s recommendation, on Dec. 18 the San Diego Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve permits for the Monarch Cottages Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility proposed for 7630 Fay Ave. — the building formerly housing the Chopra Center and a cosmetic surgery center.

Although many have praised the facility’s design, during its Dec. 4 meeting the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) city advisory group on land-use issues voted 11-4-1 that findings could not be made to approve the project due to its lack of retail space on the ground floor. Zone 3 of the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance (PDO) — or blueprint for design — calls for the front 50 percent of a building’s ground floor to be designated as retail.

Much of the deliberation during the Planning Commission meeting centered on a “reasonable accommodation” exemption city staff granted to the project in October, which allows a deviation from the PDO retail requirement because the project will provide housing for disabled persons. The project is part of the city’s Sustainable Building Expedite Program, which reduces the time it takes to review development permit requests.

“This is an important need. It is a well-conceived concept and it sounds like it’s a very, very good operator, but what we’re talking about here is conformance to the land-development code,” LJCPA Board President Joe LaCava testified during the Planning Commission meeting. “The retail component was the primary driver of creating the La Jolla PDO in the first place.”

The Planning Commission staff report noted that the addition of retail as required by the PDO would eliminate four units from the 26-room facility, though LaCava argued that this slight loss wouldn’t preclude reasonable use as a residential care facility.

LaCava also countered the assertion that the building’s irregular configuration — which has contributed to its vacancy — would continue to make it a challenging space to rent for retail use. He said the addition of a seven-screen cinema complex under construction across the street and planned performing arts center next door on Fay would dramatically boost its market appeal.

“It has been a tough sell, but they’re measuring against the recession,” LaCava said. “The revitalization plans that you heard for the block are underway … and once those are in place, you can bet retailers and restaurateurs will be flocking to that building to be able to use it.”

LaCava said the conditional-use permit required for the project only stipulates that the building be used as a residential care facility. “They do not have to put any disabled people in this building once they get that permit in hand,” he said.

However, City of San Diego Development Project Manager Laura Black noted that the facility would be regulated by the state, specifically for elderly persons with Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairments. To eliminate any uncertainty, Monarch Cottages representative Matthew Peterson asked Black to insert language denoting this specific usage into the conditional-use permit.

Planning Commissioner Theresa Quiroz expressed concern that elected planning group board members may not fully understand the city’s reasonable accommodation provision mandated by state and federal law — and said the city needs to help clarify the provision and educate board members.

“The City of San Diego allows residential care facilities and then puts things into the code … that stops those residential care facilities from being built — and the requirement for retail is one of those issues,” Quiroz said, noting that a city analysis found that San Diego does not provide nearly enough housing to seniors with disabilities.

“That is one of the major reasons why this part of the municipal code is in there,” Quiroz said. “This is an extraordinarily important issue for the City of San Diego. … It’s a very good project and as a city we are required to comply with federal law, and federal law says that we have to have fair housing. ... We need these projects to be put in now more than ever.”

Commission Vice-Chair Stephen Haase said he believes the city’s reasonable accommodation process is “objective” and is working well.

Commissioner Susan Peerson said she liked the openness of Monarch Cottages’ proposed façade.

“Though it’s not retail, it’s still getting at I think the intent of (the PDO), which is an active street frontage where you can see in and see people doing things.”

Planning Commission Chair Tim Golba said he didn’t agree with members of the LJCPA or its PDO subcommittee that the project would be precedent setting, opening the door to other such retail exemptions in Zone 3. Like it or not, he said, other such exemptions could occur if there were “some other statute that allowed it to be there.

“We or somebody below or above us would have a chance to review each and every project individually,” he said.

A compromise in the works

On the heels of the Planning Commission’s approval, a compromise is being proposed to satisfy the PDO retail requirement.

Peterson said his clients, John and Frank Haffner of ASL Monarch Living, are eager to reach accord with the LJCPA, PDO committee and La Jolla Village Merchants Association and “activate” the frontage of Monarch Cottages to the community’s satisfaction.

Peterson said his clients are working to design a 400-square-foot space by the sidewalk for a coffee cart or outdoor café that would be open to the public. To make way for the space, front walls and a planter would be removed to open up the area for tables, chairs and an awning and/or umbrellas.

The LJCPA will consider the proposal during its next monthly meeting, 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 5 at La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St. (Note the revised date.) Peterson said he would likely return to the PDO committee again, to present signage, colors and exterior building materials for the project.

Responding to La Jolla Light via e-mail, LaCava said he felt the commissioners took the LJCPA’s concerns “to heart,” and expressed optimism in the proposed solution.

He said, “If the community supports that refinement, it could provide the needed vibrancy during the day as well as possibly serving the new movie theaters and the future music (center) in the evening.”