Planning Commission OKs long-stalled Whitney Project, but new appeal filed with City Council
Like the weatherman portrayed by Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day,” La Jolla Shores residents Bob and Kim Whitney have been reliving the same impasse with community members and neighbor Myrna Naegle since 2009, when they first applied for permits to demolish their one-story properties at 2202 and 2206 Avenida de la Playa, and build a three-story, mixed-use building.
Current plans include ground-floor retail, residential condos on the second and third floors, an elevator, underground garage and a car lift.
Although the project features articulation and setbacks on its north, west and south sides, its east side — which faces Naegle’s property and living area — would be a solid, three-story wall of more than 60 feet, which Naegle says would prevent light and ventilation from reaching her property.
“It would be dark, it would be devastating,” said Naegle, making her case yet again to the San Diego Planning Commission on April 16.
Also opposed to the project are the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) and some La Jolla Shores residents, who feel its bulk and scale are out of character with the neighborhood and fly in the face of the La Jolla Shores Planned District Ordinance (PDO) and La Jolla Shores Design Manual. Both were adopted to prevent further large- scale development in the Shores, such as a four-story office building directly across Avenida de la Playa from the Whitneys’ property that was built in 1974.
The Whitneys’ son, Bobby Whitney, told the Planning Commission his parents purchased their property in 2007, and that the first architect hired on the project was Myrna Naegle’s late husband, famed architect Dale Naegle.
“We worked with Mr. Naegle and eventually concluded that we wanted to go in a different direction,” Bobby Whitney said, noting that Dale Naegle and others would go on to oppose his parents’ plans.
“We’ve been put through the ringer procedurally and emotionally,” he said. “We’re really frustrated and exhausted at this point, but we’re determined because we’re really proud of the building we’ve designed.”
La Jolla Shores architect Phil Merten, who serves on the La Jolla Shores Permit Review committee — a subcommittee of the LJCPA — said his group has reviewed the project several times, and has also rejected it.
Unlike the Village of La Jolla and the rest of San Diego, La Jolla Shores does not have established floor-area ratios (FARs) that help determine an appropriate size for development projects in relation to their lot size. However, Merten said that, by his estimation, the Whitney project would have a FAR one-third larger than what is allowed for similar projects elsewhere in La Jolla and San Diego.
Despite the absence of established FARs, Merten said the La Jolla Shores PDO and accompanying La Jolla Shores Design Manual, include language that prevent buildings from being constructed that are too large or out of character with the surrounding area.
LJCPA president Joe LaCava concurred, adding that the lack of FARs in the Shores “makes it a little bit harder for the decision maker,” although he assured the La Jolla Shores PDO does include “qualitative measures” to control the mass and density of buildings.
“The question in front of you is, ‘Should the project be judged against older projects that were rejected by the community and the City Council as not reflecting how the Shores should be developed going forward, or should it be judged by the Shores’ PDO?’ ” LaCava asked.
Merten said Dale Naegle designed the building in which his widow still resides (that includes a ground-floor boutique) to be a template for that block, where a two-story façade would front Avenida de la Playa, while a smaller, understated third story is “tucked back underneath the sloping roof and attic portions of that building.” This so- called “shopkeeper” design provided for a total of 10 feet between adjoining properties to avoid blocking neighbors’ light and ventilation. Merten and others say Naegle’s intended model should be maintained on the block.
Citing the four-story building across Avenida de la Playa (behind Laureate Park), Merten added, “The La Jolla Shores Planned District Ordinance was designed so that that never happens again. It was to maintain the two-story character on this commercial street.”
Representing the Whitney family, land-use attorney Robin Madaffer argued that La Jolla Shores allows a maximum building height of 30 feet, the proposed height of her clients’ project.
“Had (the community) wanted all the buildings to be two stories, I think they would have had a lower height limit,” Madaffer said, adding that, according to the La Jolla Shores PDO, buildings in the Shores’ commercial corridor are allowed 100 percent lot coverage, while the Whitney project proposes only 94 percent lot coverage.
Planning Commissioner Susan Peerson said she doesn’t believe any language in the Shores’ PDO precludes projects from fully utilizing their development potential.
“I believe the character of the neighborhood will change, and I think that this is a project that’s a positive change,” Peerson said. “I appreciate the community’s concern, but I also believe these one-story buildings (along Avenida de la Playa) are going to be replaced with two- and three- story buildings. I do not see that this neighborhood is going to keep that small development envelope that we see now, nor should it. We’re encouraging our pedestrian areas where you have residences, employment and shopping that allow for a mix of uses and maximize the density.”
Representing project opponents, attorney Julie Hamilton noted the Whitneys’ second- and third-story condos would be 3,179 and 2,780 square feet, while the ground-floor retail space would be just 1,867 square feet. Although the Whitneys reduced the size of their project by about 500 square feet since it was first proposed, Hamilton argued that on the second and third floors “it is certainly possible to (further) reduce the size of this project and not suffer tremendously.”
Planning Commissioner Douglas Austin said he would feel more comfortable with the project if it had a five-foot setback on its east side, following the model proposed by Dale Naegle.
In the end, the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to approve the project (certifying its environmental report), with several “friendly amendments.” These include: a stipulation that vines covering the building to soften its appearance (as proposed in architectural renderings) be maintained in perpetuity; that solar panels be added to the project in accordance with the city’s Sustainable Building Expedite program; and that a method be devised to alert pedestrians to a crosswalk at the corner.
Planning Commission Chair Tim Golba and the commissioners went one step further, urging the Whitneys to work with their architect to create a setback in the east side of the building’s third story — and, if possible, its second story — to allow light and air into Naegle’s living quarters.
Behind an elevator shaft facing Avenida de la Playa, Golba said, is “what I would call a no-man’s-land of a powder room, laundry room, closet and bath.
“I have to believe that there’s a potential to provide something of an additional setback on the third floor as an attempt to reach a compromise,” he said. “This project’s gone on long enough. I have no doubt (it will be appealed). Between now and (when the project returns to) the City Council, let’s look for a solution. Nobody wants to see this drag on.”
(LaCava confirmed the LJCPA filed an appeal on April 24.)
Peerson said she agrees with a growing sentiment among Shores residents that the Shores PDO needs to be updated and revised to clear up some of the ambiguity that has dogged the Whitney project. “I’m seeing some vigorous nods (from the audience),” she noted.
Golba said the Whitney project was part of the impetus for a recent update to the city’s land development code that prevents projects from perpetually bouncing back and forth between city decision makers. “This project is based on the old code, which allows this sort of pinball effect to take place,” he said.