Landmark area on La Jolla Boulevard is emerging as a place to stop and see
By Jeanette Steele
August 24, 2005
There's a new Bird Rock emerging from a haze of construction dust.
After years of residents' bemoaning the lackluster state of their small business district, the first signals of a renaissance are visible in this seaside corner of La Jolla.
The signposts: A 2-year-old Starbucks, a Longs Drugs (expected soon), Beaumont's, a new restaurant owned by the owners of the Brockton Villa restaurant at La Jolla Cove, and several boutiques, which have appeared in the past two years along La Jolla Boulevard.
Seahaus, a large luxury condo complex, is a bold new face in the neighborhood, replacing two worn-out motels.
Compare that to a history of restaurants that opened and then quickly shuttered and forlorn storefronts that showed the wear of years.
The biggest change, however, stretches down the middle of La Jolla Boulevard. After years of heated debate, residents of Bird Rock agreed to radically alter the boulevard.
Five roundabouts will replace stop signs along La Jolla Boulevard in the business district. Traffic will narrow to two lanes from four, and diagonal parking will be added on half the street. Concrete medians decorated with trees and flowers will run down the heart of the thoroughfare.
Developers are paying for some of the road work; the city has allocated $1.1 million and is seeking a $2 million state grant for the rest of the project.
The idea is to slow down cars. Many drivers see Bird Rock merely as a speedy route between Pacific Beach and the rest of La Jolla, according to residents.
Proponents hope the slower pace will make the business strip safer and more appealing for pedestrians, especially for locals who want to walk to restaurants and stores.
And, they hope drivers will realize they're in a rejuvenated shopping area.
"I think we're going to see a busier, livelier community with more events," said Pennie Carlos, president of the Bird Rock Community Council.
Not everyone, however, likes the direction the community is taking.
Some worry that the roundabouts will push drivers onto residential side streets to avoid the boulevard, despite the installation of smaller traffic circles there to discourage that behavior.
"Five roundabouts – one on every intersection – has to be overkill by any standard," said David Little, who thinks drivers will try his nearby street as a through route. "This plan sacrifices residential streets for the sake of businesses and condominiums on La Jolla Blvd."
Some merchants think slower speeds might turn customers away.
"I'm all for improvements. But the jury is still out on whether all the changes are improvements," said Pete Schroeder, whose piano showroom has anchored a corner of La Jolla Boulevard since 1996.
"If it makes it less desirable to drive through here, I see that as . . . not necessarily an improvement."
These voices are balanced by merchants who have been attracted by the changes.
Cecilia Filter opened Birdrock Bikini in April. The Starbucks and a nearby high-end women's boutique drew her to the neighborhood.
"There's just a different feeling in the air," said Filter, a resident of La Jolla. "The community is really embracing it. They want it to be a retail district."
Henry Neoman bought The French Pastry Shop last November. He gave the older building an interior makeover and plans to turn half the property into an Asian restaurant and offer live music at night.
"I saw it as one of the last areas in La Jolla that was undervalued and underdeveloped. I saw more younger people moving into the area," Neoman said.
He thinks this section of La Jolla Boulevard will look like the popular Pearl Street in La Jolla Village in few years.
The Seahaus development – 138 units selling for up to $1.9 million each – is another draw in Neoman's eyes.
But other residents have seen Seahaus, which will be completed this year, as a behemoth barging into a quaint neighborhood. The condos hit the coastal 30-foot height limit and some people don't like the traffic and urban-style density the units bring.
Some have blamed the Seahaus developer, Barratt American, for the roundabout plan on La Jolla Boulevard. Barratt is paying $2 million to build the first two roundabouts, which are expected to be finished early next month.
But the decision-makers say Barratt wasn't behind the roundabouts.
It cost the company more to build those than it would have paid for standard road work, said Councilman Scott Peters and several of Bird Rock's community leaders.
Barratt spokesman Robert Laing said it was money his company would have rather not spent. "They more or less twisted our arm, and at the end of the day we're pleased to have been good corporate citizens," Laing said.
One vote of approval for Bird Rock's new persona is that the community recently decided to tax itself to fund upkeep of the new street landscaping. A maintenance assessment district means residents of Bird Rock will pay $60 to $90 a year; merchants will pay an average of $500.
Meanwhile, a community debate is brewing over a move to change zoning rules in Bird Rock's business district.
Two changes would: Allow three-story buildings within the 30-foot height limit, instead of the current two-story restriction
Change an existing requirement that storefronts offer at least 50 percent retail space.
Proponents say three stories will make developments easier to finance.
For example, it would allow two stories of housing units above a retail store, said architect Mark Lyon of Bird Rock and a member of the community council committee.
"Economically, it's not a viable option to have an existing retail space and a one-story residence. You can't make the numbers work from an investment standpoint," Lyon said.
As for the 50 percent rule, Lyon said some property owners would like more flexibility in the face of regional shopping centers dominating the retail scene. If demand for retail is hot, stores will come in. If it's not, other kinds of users could fill the space, he said.
But, Lyon said, "We don't want to change the integrity of the retail history of the neighborhood."
Others in Bird Rock are wary.
Megan Heine of Bird Rock, co-owner of the new Beaumont's restaurant, worries that three-story buildings would bring too much density and ruin the village atmosphere.
"I don't want it insanely overbuilt," Heine said.