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Aesthetics vs. Coastal Bureaucracy

Architect Wallace Cunningham and his La Jolla client didn’t expect a bumpy ride. They merely wanted to build a custom home by Cunningham, one of San Diego’s better architects, high on Mt. Soledad in the midst of a neighborhood of similar-size homes.

But they didn’t bargain on all the obstacles the California Coastal Commission’s local office put in front of them. This relatively small-scale project turned into a heated battle over how much of a hillside lot vegetated with native species should be covered with a building.

By the time all was said and done, the project was delayed several months, the client spent thousands of dollars on an attorney, and the house was eventually approved by coastal commissioners--exactly as originally designed by Cunningham and despite recommendations against the project by the local commission staff.

Janice Kay Batter and Michael Batter, the Del Mar architects whose work is known internationally, recently scrapped with the commission over a project near the Del Mar Race Track. Batter-Kay’s buildings are often white, as this small cluster of speculative houses will be. But the local commission staff tried to change the exterior to an earthen tone, even though dozens of buildings just across Via de la Valle, and even some nearby oceanfront houses, are stark white.

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Again, they were overruled by the commissioners.

Bizarre Bureaucracy

In yet another case of bizarre bureaucracy, a North County architect had designed a custom home for a hilltop lot, only to be told by local commission staffers that the home should be clustered with several others below its prime view site.

Once more, it appears the commissioners may allow the home to be built as proposed by the architect.

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What’s happening? Are the architects just paranoid when they complain that they’ve been trampled, that good design is becoming a Herculean task in the face of coastal environmental standards enforced locally without an ounce of flexibility?

The truth is, the matter of coastal building has grown extremely complex as local governments like San Diego’s begin to take back control of coastal planning. Although in some cities, local control may mean a more efficient path for new buildings, observers in San Diego think it will result in an even rockier road for architects.

California’s 12-member Coastal Commission was created in 1972 after voters passed the statewide Coastal Protection Initiative. In 1976, the Legislature made the commission a permanent state agency. All along, the commission was intended to control coastal development in California while local governments created guidelines for protecting their coastal assets: natural hillsides, public access to the coast, scenic views from major public roadways and marine and wetland resources such as North County’s lagoons.

About the time Cunningham’s design was being processed by various city of San Diego departments, other city planners were working with the commission to develop their Local Coastal Plan, which must be approved by the commission before local governments take control of coastal projects. Commission staffers decided to measure the La Jolla house against the stricter encroachment standards included in the new LCP, even though the project had been in the “pipeline” long before.

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They believed the house would cover too much of the hillside.

Instead, they suggested that Cunningham and his client put a house on a 12-foot-wide strip near the top of the 1/2-acre lot, next to Via Casa Alta Drive. To get an appropriate-sized house for the neighborhood--5,000 square feet or so--would have required a tall, narrow box, instead of a house that stepped gently down the hillside. It would have blocked ocean views from the street.

Of course, the commission has its opinion.

‘Don’t Take Issue’

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“We don’t take issue with the design of a structure,” said Adam Birnbaum, a planner in the commission’s San Diego office. “We’re only interested in the way it affects the coast, the wetlands, the scenic view-sheds.”

“That’s not true,” Cunningham countered. “Bad planning brings bad architecture.”

“Siting is going to comprise the vast majority of times where we take issue,” Birnbaum said.

He and his associates don’t want to change buildings, just re-site them as necessary so they don’t block views or cover pristine hillsides, he said.

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But as Cunningham, who studied at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, knows, the best buildings fit their sites like a custom suit. Move from hillside to hilltop or vice versa, and the tailoring--window placement, shading, landscape issues, the siting of the house on the land--changes completely.

If the local architects thought it was tough getting through the commission’s maze, wait until they deal with the city under the new LCP.

“Once they take over, they can’t make an exception like we just did,” said Chula Vista Councilman and state Coastal Commissioner David Malcolm, one of the “yes” votes for Cunningham’s design. “They’ll have to amend the Local Coastal Plan, and it will take six to eight months to get a home through. They’ll end up with uglier, more obtrusive homes.

“These poor architects are going to go crazy, and so is San Diego’s City Council. They’ll look at a superior home design, one that’s less obtrusive, but they won’t be able to do it. The rule could lead to uglier homes that don’t encroach on valuable slopes.”

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City Architect and Assistant Planning Director Mike Stepner didn’t disagree.

‘More Flexible Way’

“I think what will happen is, as the city gets more adept at dealing with coastal ordinances and their application in the coastal zone, we will probably be able to look at a more flexible way of staying within the codes.”

The city wanted each coastal project to be individually reviewed, instead of subject to the blanket commission-approved LCP. But the commission didn’t want to give the city that much control.

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So, for the foreseeable future, it looks like architects doing small coastal projects on sensitive sites in San Diego may find tough sledding. Let’s hope the city can develop more flexibility before overzealous enforcement of the LCP leads to mediocre buildings instead of the top-drawer designs the coastline deserves.


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