Restrictions on Building : La Jolla Village Defenders See Their Efforts Pay Off

San Diego County Business Editor

Call them the upscale urban environmentalists.

They are La Jollans, keenly aware of the forces of economic change but fiercely committed to maintaining the physical integrity of the community's famed downtown village.

And now, four months after the approval of a city ordinance limiting construction in La Jolla, community activists are beginning to see their efforts pay off.

"It's too early to tell if (our work) will do what we wanted it to do, but it looks like it will," predicted Kenneth P. King, president of the La Jolla Town Council, a 1,000-member coalition of La Jolla residents, businesses and property owners. "The loopholes, if any, haven't showed up yet."

The ordinance requires that at least 50% of the ground level of new offices buildings in downtown La Jolla be for retail purposes, that new commercial buildings be limited to a maximum of 1.3 times the square footage of the property, that new office buildings be no more than 20 feet high on their street facades and that landscaping and design conform to certain specifications.

Under the ordinance, most office buildings will top out at 10,000 square feet, a far cry from the large, glass-and-steel office structures that have sprouted in the village, typically with three-stories and in excess of 100,000 square feet.

Although some developers initially balked at the ordinance, many real estate professionals now have embraced the new regulations and are learning to live within their boundaries.

Creative Mix

"I think the ordinance will encourage architects and property owners to mix more creatively the residential and commercial uses," according to Michael Slattery, agent for Coldwell Banker's commercial real estate division.

Indeed, pressure from the community helped the owner of the empty Walker Scott building to scale down his plans for a 50,000-square-foot complex to a 30,000-square-foot retail center, with only 8,000 square feet of office space. Ground will be broken in the next two months, with completion due sometime next year, Slattery said.

If growth had continued unchecked, the "attractiveness of La Jolla would have deteriorated rapidly," King said. "It would have looked like Manhattan and these people would have not liked to work and shop here."

King spends his days as a financial analyst for The Signal Cos., San Diego's largest publicly held corporation. In his office--on North Torrey Pines Road, outside the boundaries of La Jolla's growth ordinance--a computer spews out currency trends for dozens of foreign countries. It is the epitome of high-tech finance.

But walking the streets of La Jolla's downtown village, King resembles someone from Mayberry, RFD. People know and recognize him, and he knows the history and politics of the various project developments.

The mild-mannered King has also upset some applecarts, however. "Some people are reactionary and want to turn back the clock," he said. "But things aren't the same."

Although he likes to think of himself as "something of a compromiser," there are those who have taken exception to his tenure as Town Council president.

'Very Emotional'

"I didn't think I'd make any enemies, but I did," he said of his one-year term, which expires in two months. "Some people are very emotional and are on one side or the other. If they don't get their way, it's easy to take it out on the moderator. But the satisfaction is so much greater than the annoyance."

One sore point in the village is the steady stream of businesses that fold. Interestingly, in a town where everybody seems to know something about everything, nobody has a definitive answer for the failing shops.

"There are small stores doing well right next to small stores that have gone out. If they market products well, they can do well," said Bill Lamkin, property agent for Capital Growth Properties. "In La Jolla you have to have quality products and market to an upscale audience. You have to be fairly specific and specialized."

Improper merchandising, however, "doesn't mean La Jolla is wrong. There are plenty of people here with money in their pockets," insisted Bob Collins, who owns several La Jolla properties, including Inn by the Sea and Chateau La Jolla.

Certainly the upscale restaurants that have opened in La Jolla in the last year--including Avante, Pax and George's at the Cove--speak well for at least one type of potentially successful business.

High Rents

Lamkin and others discounted the impact that La Jolla's high rents have on business failures. Retail rents range from $1.25 to $5 per square foot, depending on location. Office space ranges from $1.25 to $3.50 per square foot, with the average about $2.75, he said.

The rents likely will remain high, despite an office vacancy rate of 24.2%, higher than the county average of 21.3%, according a just-released Chamber of Commerce survey of office space last spring and summer.

"There will always be a place for the mom-and-pop shops, although I'm not sure they will be on the primary streets," said Slattery. "High rents in and of themselves separate the real professionals from the hobby-basis tenants."

Slattery countered criticism by some community activists that La Jolla's downtown village is becoming like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

"La Jolla still has community-serving businesses," he said. "But downtown has been affected by attrition because of growth in the Golden Triangle and because of an unprecedented amount of space now on the market. La Jolla never had a high vacancy rate."

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