A panel of experts came together at St. James by-the-Sea on April 25 for an informational panel discussion titled “La Jollans Knickers in a Knot,” explaining the history one of La Jolla’s most significant land use documents — the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance (PDO).
The creation of the PDO, which tailors zoning regulations in La Jolla’s Village center, was a product of the community’s frustration over the movement toward large, blocky office buildings that was trending in the 1980s.
Due to a combination of economic pressures, La Jolla became a prestigious location to construct office buildings at that time. Out-of-date 1934 zoning ordinances, however, did not arm the community with much to protect itself from the fast-moving urban development condition.
To add to the challenge, the California Coastal Commission was insistent on maintaining parking ratios. The result of this mandate increased pressures on developers to make room for parking lots by demolishing existing buildings and maxing out office space to generate sufficient funds to pay for their required parking.
The impacts on La Jolla were threefold, said former city staff member and PDO author Angeles Leira.
First were the dramatic changes to the scale and character of La Jolla’s buildings; second, the loss of community-serving uses; and finally, the start of a transformation of La Jolla’s once low-scale traditional downtown Village into a high-end office center.
The genesis of the PDO development process began when La Jolla resident Sue Oxley showed up at Leira’s desk airing concern about the rapidly changing face of La Jolla and asking what could be done to counter it.
Six months later, Oxley appeared before the City Council wielding a petition with 98,000 signatures and an entourage of community members in opposition to the bulky office buildings, effectively launching the Ban Large Office Buildings (BLOB) movement.
“The council then responded,” said Leira. “The first thing they did was issue an emergency ordinance reducing the density by half, but the emergency ordinance would only be good for a year, so they directed city staff to come up with a solution.”
Leira met faithfully with about 20 members from the community workforce — ranging from architects and developers to community advocates and city employees — all working to shape community development.
“We wanted to really try to come to a consensus and fix it for everybody. No one was dismissed. Everybody had a say, and we found more things in common than not,” Leira said. “In that manner, we completed the ordinance and went to the City Council for adoption in nine months, which was a record.”
The ordinance was unanimously approved by the City Council, adopted by the Planning Commission and eventually by the Coastal Commission.
The final PDO reflected the community’s fondness for light-colored, lower-density buildings using natural building materials. It also mitigated concerns about view blockage, the proliferation of office uses and unused parking structures, and streetscape development encroachments.
After working with the document for many years, the PDO Advisory Committee, whose members included current La Jolla Community Planning Association trustee Bob Collins, decided a few modifications to the PDO were needed.
“It was a very thoughtful document, and it was interesting to work with it, but in doing so, we found that there were a few refinements that were needed,” Collins said. “About 10 years ago, we put together 24 changes that we felt needed to be incorporated into the PDO.”
Although the revisions were written, supported by the community and approved by all the planning groups, the document effectively died when it went to the city.
“A lot of good, hard spadework was done by every organization in La Jolla, but we’re still waiting,” he said.
Leira said with the right combination of people in power, the revisions can be pushed through the city if the community wants it badly enough.
“It’s not that difficult to process the changes,” she said. “If we have [the city’s] cooperation, then pretty soon, you are working with staff, doing the changes, going to the Planning Commission, going to [City] Council and it’s done. It can be done. But you need the combination of people in power. If you don’t have it then you are out of luck. This is the time to do it.”
Even in the 10 years since the revisions were made, La Jolla has undergone many changes. For starters, the PDO was altered to incorporate citywide zoning code updates in 2000, which allowed certain projects to skip community review altogether.
“In the city’s estimation, a Process One now is a ‘redevelopment by right,’ meaning all you have to do is show you’re meeting the code,” said Ione Steigler, current PDO Advisory Committee chairwoman. “They believe they can process at the city all the permits that meet their interpretation of the PDO without having to discuss them with us.”
Amid her committee’s frustration, Steigler learned that while her committee was not responsible for reviewing all projects beforehand, it could go about enforcing the PDO when projects were in violation.
“[City Associate Planner] Chris Larson told us that our right was that if something did go in wrong that we could then enforce it,” said Steigler. “We really don’t want to be punitive. We want to be helpful — advisory — to the community.”
Every panel member opined that the community is, in fact, better off for having come together years ago to draft the PDO. Still — whether through lack of enforcement, difficulty in amending the document or dealing with a frustrating revision to the process — many also indicated there is room for improvement.
The question now: is it worth it?