Mark Lyon has a plaque on his wall that was awarded to him by the La Jolla Light newspaper on behalf of the residents of La Jolla. In 2004, he was voted in as the best architect in the community in the newspaper’s annual “Best Of” awards.

“I don’t think I’m likely to ever win that again,” Lyon chuckled Tuesday at his office in Bird Rock.

Lyon and a few of his associates are at the epicenter of a storm that’s upsetting the tranquility of one of San Diego’s most tony neighborhoods. He and fellow architect Michael Morton are trying to push through controversial changes to the area blueprint for commercial development in La Jolla that has been in force since the early 1980s, known as the planned district ordinance, or PDO.

The proposals would loosen up the rules for developing mixed-use projects in some parts of La Jolla, something that Lyon said will reinvigorate the area, but which critics said will do nothing for local people and everything for developers.

In recent weeks, a forest of signs protesting against the changes has sprouted all over the 92037 ZIP code. Local planning meetings have been besieged by angry residents. Local merchants say they have been scared into keeping mum about the proposals, lest they incur the wrath of the community.

In the most controversial of their proposals, the architects and supporters want developers to be allowed to build three stories, so long as the building fits within the existing height limit of 30 feet. The current limit is two stories.

The Lyon and Morton proposal would also allow for higher density in developments within the Bird Rock area of La Jolla. Currently, development in Bird Rock is to be less dense than La Jolla; the proposal would bring the area’s density in line with the rest of La Jolla.

Taller and denser buildings make developers’ properties more valuable.

Lyon said his proposal offers incentives to developers to move into Bird Rock, an area of La Jolla where many commercial properties currently stand empty, new restaurants tend to come and go with the seasons, and lots have stood vacant for years.

“Something needs to happen to allow people to develop those properties, because right now they’re dead in the water,” Lyon said.

But Steve Haskins, an attorney and a member of the outspoken residents’ group No Third Story, which has set up a Web site to fight the proposed changes, said the idea that retailers and small businesses do not have the incentive to move into La Jolla is ridiculous.

Bird Rock, for one, has seen several new businesses move in over the last few years, he said, and bringing services to residents is not what this proposal is about.

“They don’t care about retail; this whole mixed use thing is a scam so that they can max out La Jolla with condominiums,” he said.

Some local people are inclined to agree.

David Frapwell, who lives in Bird Rock and has lived in La Jolla all his life, said he’s recently been thinking about moving away as the character of his neighborhood has changed. The three stories issue is not just about technicalities, he said, but has been grasped by local people as a way to fight back at what they see as ever-encroaching development by greedy businessmen.

“I think a lot of local people – people who have lived here all their lives – know that this is really all about financial gain,” Frapwell said.

Indeed, in addition gentrifying the neighborhood and attracting some much-needed foot traffic to Bird Rock’s commercial strip, Lyon has another good reason for supporting the three stories amendment.

He is currently working on plans for Bird Rock Station, a 16,000-square-foot mixed-use development. The plans call for the building to be three stories, including a level of commercial space, topped by two stories of condos.

Lyon said that’s just a coincidence.

“We are processing that building under the current rules; it has nothing to do with the PDO update,” he said.

Many community members don’t believe him. Haskins said that building condos is by far the most lucrative way of making use of land in San Diego. He cited downtown San Diego as an example, where thousands of condos have been constructed or are in the pipeline.

Haskins said Lyon and his allies have been fighting for years to increase density allowances in La Jolla, and with only one purpose: to line their own pockets and the pockets of their friends.

“Condos and a little bit of retail would be an incredible windfall for these people,” he said.

The net result of any changes to the PDO for La Jollans, Haskins said, will be increased traffic, less parking and a greater tug on an already strained infrastructure.

The three stories matter is due to be debated at the monthly meeting of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, which takes place Thursday at the La Jolla Rec Center. Council President Scott Peters, whose district includes La Jolla, said he’ll be there.

Peters said he’s going to be working with the community to try and get a meaningful discussion going between the two opposing sides of the three-story debate. The sniping that’s been going on for the last few months and the roadside signs have not been useful.

“In La Jolla, things like this always become emotional,” Peters said.

Peters said he hopes to quell any dissent on the issue from hereon in. He said he plans to convene a group of interested parties to examine the three stories issue with the aid of independent experts in community planning. Change in areas of La Jolla like Bird Rock is inevitable, he said, and he wants to facilitate those changes and make them beneficial to the community at large, not just a few interested parties.

Recommendations for changes to local planning documents are made by community planning groups, but the City Council has final say on such issues.

“My main goal is that, inside two years, that area is going to be nicer than Del Mar,” he said. “And I think it can be, I really do.”

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

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