Debate Droned Until Midnight : Like It or Not, La Jolla Has Culture Zone

Times Staff Writer

Shortly before midnight Tuesday, a weary San Diego City Council acted to create the city's first cultural zone, born of suspicion and distrust and designed to prevent some of La Jolla's oldest, most prestigious institutions from selling their land to condominium builders and moving away.

By a 7-1 vote, with Councilwoman Judy McCarty opposed, the council reluctantly bowed to majority opinion and officially created a small cultural zone around the intersection of Silverado and Prospect streets. The zone covers property owned by two churches, a private school, a women's club and the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Adoption of a formal cultural zone ordinance is scheduled for April 8.

Nearly five hours of testimony preceded the council action. During the marathon meeting held in the museum's Sherwood Hall, community leaders and residents debated whether to remove residential zoning rights from the six nonprofit organizations and to substitute relaxed development standards that would allow the valuable central La Jolla real estate to be used to its fullest--but only for cultural pursuits.

Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose district includes La Jolla, also proposed that the institutions be allowed to sell the residential density rights they are prevented from using on their own property to developers for use elsewhere in the city. The idea drew negative comments from fellow council members, who pointed out that no area of the city should have to suffer increased development density exported from La Jolla.

Ignored in the final vote were three alternatives prepared by city planners which would have put strict controls on residential development on the six properties and in a larger, six-square-block area surrounding the target institutions.

A phalanx of attorneys representing the museum, the Bishop's School, La Jolla Woman's Club, La Jolla Presbyterian Church and Saint James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church argued that none of the groups plans to leave the community or to sell out to land developers--but they need the residential zoning their properties carry so they can borrow money for expansion and operations.

Chris Calkins, attorney for the museum, accused culture zone supporters of trying to "strip away the most valuable asset any of these institutions have," and seriously harming what they seek to preserve.

Culture zone advocates, who included actor Cliff Robertson and Roger Revelle, founding father of the UC San Diego campus, delivered both emotional pleas to preserve what they called La Jolla's most beautiful buildings and warnings that the cultural buildings could become the site for 530 "condominiums for millionaires" if controls were not imposed.

The final council action pleased few on either side of the debate, which started more than a year ago. When it became public knowledge in January, 1985, that the La Jolla museum had put out feelers on moving to a site on the G Street mole along San Diego Bay and had looked at other sites, including one adjacent to the UCSD campus. The possibility that the art gallery might sell its valuable La Jolla site, with a sweeping view of the ocean, and use the profits to build larger quarters elsewhere led La Jollans to mobilize.

Attorney Bruce Henderson, arguing for the cultural zone, said members of the museum became concerned last year after directors of the institution dropped from its bylaws wording that required the organization to provide "a permanent art center in La Jolla," and, when challenged, refused to restore the provision.

Culture zone advocates also argued that most of the land on which the cluster of architecturally and historically important buildings are situated was donated to the organizations by the Scripps family or was acquired through community donations.

Spokesmen for the organizations charged that the cultural zone restrictions would threaten their property values if the area was stripped of its underlying residential zoning, which allows as many as 43 residential units an acre.

"The key issue is that these institutions want the option of going into the real estate business," said Sue Oxley, leader of the activist group seeking the cultural zone controls. "People have forgotten that gifts from the Scripps family made it possible for these institutions to exist."

Those gifts of land and money were made to the residents of La Jolla, not to the organizations that now want the right to turn their land into "condominiums for millionaires," Oxley contended.

Although none of the groups has announced plans to sell its property and move from the central La Jolla site, Oxley pointed out that spiraling land prices and a dwindling supply of prime La Jolla real estate can only increase the pressure on them to do just that.

A committee of La Jolla civic leaders and representatives from the affected institutions wrestled with the cultural zone issue last spring and summer, ending with the same division of opinion with which they had begun.

Many La Jollans found themselves in the middle, favoring establishment of a cultural zone that would preserve the institutions and their architecturally important buildings but concerned about the economic impact that restrictive zoning would have on their church, school, club or museum.

Proposals to expand the cultural zone to include the former Scripps Clinic site, now leased as a scientific research organization, further clouded the issue and added to the threat of lawsuits against the city for taking away vested property rights. The privately owned building was not included in the culture zone.

In return for restricting the use of the cultural institutions' property, planners propose to relax building and parking requirements. Mandatory setbacks, off-street parking, density limits and other restrictions applying outside the cultural zone would be waived or eased to allow expansion of the buildings for cultural uses and compatible purposes, such as a museum restaurant or an art mart.

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