Stamp of Approval: Silver Street mail-sorting hub is poised to become 18 townhomes
In a rare move, the committee established to uphold La Jolla’s blueprint for development, or Planned District Ordinance document (PDO), voted unanimously to convey support for a proposed residential project that would deviate from a PDO requirement that the development include commercial or retail space.
The two-story Silver Street Village Homes project calls for 18 two- to four-bedroom townhomes at the corner of Silver Street and Draper Avenue, currently home to an animal hospital and postal service facility. Each unit would be from 1,800 to 2,600 square feet and including its own rooftop deck and two-car garage.
Applicant and developer William Berwin presented the project to La Jolla’s Planned District Ordinance (PDO) committee Feb. 9 at La Jolla Rec Center. He and business partner Michael Pierson are seeking deviations from a PDO requirement that the project be mixed-use, including a ground-floor retail or commercial component.
The partners are seeking coastal and site development permits, and going through the city’s Sustainable Buildings Expedite Program, which reduces the time it takes to obtain permits for a project in exchange for adding environmentally-sustainable components (in this case, things such as low-flow water fixtures, LED lighting and rooftop solar panels).
Addressing the PDO committee, project advisor Jay Wexler noted the applicants are on their third review cycle with the city. “We found the city working hard to help us get this thing done, which is pretty unusual,” he said.
The project is located within an outcropping of PDO Zone III, which veers off the Fay Avenue commercial corridor that comprises the majority of Zone III. Wexler said he believes the outcropping where the project site is located may have been “grandfathered” into Zone III when the PDO was drafted some 38 years ago, to accommodate commercial uses located there.
However, Wexler argued that today the area near Silver Street and Draper is composed almost entirely of residential, recreational and cultural uses, and that the commercial requirement has become “impractical.”
“It’s not a commercial corridor — it just isn’t,” he said.
Berwin added, “It’s our position this (area of Zone III) was inappropriately carved out to begin with.”
Wexler said the project would add three street parking spaces, and reduce noise and air pollution from mail trucks now congregating at the postal annex.
Both the Animal Hospital of La Jolla and the U.S. Postal Service’s letter carrier annex will be relocated, Wexler said. “They’ll be out of there by the end of July,” he said.
Wexler said the building where the animal hospital is located was not determined by the city to have historic significance. He said the hospital plans to relocate to 7527 Draper Ave. (near Pearl Street), although a receptionist at the hospital told La Jolla Light a lease has not yet been finalized.
Applicant seeking vacant city land
Berwin and Pierson have been working with the city to gain control of an adjacent, rectangular parcel of city land that includes a sewer easement (also adjacent the tennis courts on Draper Avenue). The applicants hope to transform the parcel into an open space “visual amenity” for residents of its gated community. Wexler said the police and fire departments want to secure the land, which he said is currently in “a dangerous location” and invites homeless individuals to camp there.
La Jolla Village Merchants Association’s (LJVMA) executive director, Sheila Fortune, said two months ago the parcel was promised to the LJVMA by the mayor’s office for the creation of a possible pocket park, community garden or other public amenity. “I didn’t even know about this until I got here and saw on your drawing that it’s the same piece of land,” she said.
However, Wexler said the city’s new real estate assets director, Cybele Thompson, gave his clients a “good indication” they will be able to acquire the land, noting that, due to the sewer easement, “you can’t build anything on it … and can’t even plant certain trees.
“It’s a piece that, really, unfortunately, has never been given much care,” Wexler said. “We would be willing to spend a lot of money to improve it and to keep it up. Otherwise, we would fence it off or wall it off.”
Fortune later told the Light the LJVMA does not have a position on whether the land goes to the developer or to the LJVMA.
About 15.25 percent of the site will be landscaped, slightly more than required by the PDO, the project’s landscape architect, Jim Neri, said. Landscaping will include three existing Canary Island date palms on Draper, as well as Chinese flame trees and ornamental pear trees, similar to those fronting a residential housing complex across Silver Street.
The project will also include a public “mini plaza” with low plantings at the corner of Draper and Silver Street, which will not obstruct motorists’ visibility, Neri said.
Community member David Little argued the applicant should be seeking a variance from the city, which is harder to obtain and requires more scrutiny than deviations. “In my opinion you’d have a very tough time coming up with a justification for a variance,” Little said.
Community member Mike Costello noted prior instances in which an applicant didn’t qualify for a variance and instead sought a deviation, leading to acrimony and debate. “Here in La Jolla, ‘deviation’ is more like
‘deviant,’ ” he said. “It has a very bad connotation.” (The applicant’s legal representative, Matt Peterson, later explained why city staff agreed the project qualifies for deviations, including its sustainable components).
Wexler maintained that requiring the commercial component could lead to vacant storefronts at the site. “That would be a tragedy for this community,” he said. “If this was in another location I would certainly understand your resistance … (but) we designed a project that we know can be financed … and can be marketable and therefore sustained. We’re reducing the impacts that exist today. We thought that was fairly admirable and appropriate for the environment.”
Community member Ed Comartin lauded the project’s old-world European-inspired design, cautioning that another developer’s plans for the site might not be as palatable to the community.
PDO committee member Michael Dershowitz praised the applicants for their efforts to transform the site in an aesthetically pleasing way. “I don’t think it’s a great loss; I think it’s a great addition,” he said.
Peterson said he believes the PDO needs to be updated to correct anomalies such as the site’s mixed-use zoning, likening it to “peculiar gerrymandering.” “Nobody’s going to put retail in there,” he said. “You’ve got a tennis racket shop a half a block away. What else are you going to put in there?”
Committee member Joe Pitrofsky made a motion that the project does not conform to the PDO’s requirement for retail, though the committee is nevertheless voicing support for the project because the site is not located within a viable retail corridor. The motion, seconded by PDO member Anna Palmer, passed unanimously.
Loss of retail revenue at issue?
LJVMA director Fortune said the loss of the site’s retail component would impact her association, which oversees money assessed on merchants within La Jolla’s business improvement district that it uses to promote business in the Village. LJVMA board president, Claude-Anthony Marengo, voiced the same concern during a subsequent presentation of the project.
DPR recommends approval
The following day, Feb. 10, the La Jolla Development Permit Review (DPR) committee reviewed the project, and asked the applicants to attend its Feb. 17 meeting with: a study of elevations relative to neighbors on Draper Avenue and Silver Street to show how the project fits the neighborhood; a more detailed landscape study showing planned improvements to the corner (the mini plaza); additional information on the proposed deviations, and why the applicant believes a variance is not appropriate for the project; a description of how the design will “enhance and strengthen” neighborhood character; and assurance that if the applicant acquires the city-owned sliver of land, it will not be used to build an additional dwelling unit.
On Feb. 17, the DPR committee voted 5-1-1 that findings could be made to recommend approval of the project, based on what DPR member Mike Costello deemed “interesting changes and concessions,” including more details about landscaping for the corner mini plaza and an assurance that, if acquired, the applicants would not build on the city-owned land.
It was noted at DPR that the project will also require a deviation from the La Jolla Community Plan, as it is of a lower density than the plan calls for.