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Bird Rock, city by the sea

The bike trail, surf spots, roundabouts, Bird Rock Bandits

“The very first wave I surfed, in the summer of 1970, was South Bird, the break right off Bird Rock Avenue,” says Rick Farley. “And it was at that point in time that I decided if nothing else in life, I would try to figure out how I could live in this community.”
“The very first wave I surfed, in the summer of 1970, was South Bird, the break right off Bird Rock Avenue,” says Rick Farley. “And it was at that point in time that I decided if nothing else in life, I would try to figure out how I could live in this community.”

Bird Rock is the Jan Brady of coastal San Diego. To the south capers playful, silly Pacific Beach. To the north stands La Jolla, elegant and proper. And though Bird Rock is officially one of the 16 neighborhoods that constitute the pricey paradise of La Jolla, the little community has always had something of an inferiority complex, much like the middle sister in the 1960s sitcom The Brady Bunch, who grew up in the shadow of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

Some residents’ feathers will ruffle at references to Bird Rock as “La Jolla Lite” or “Baja La Jolla,” although longtime residents like Logan Jenkins, the former San Diego Union-Tribune columnist, aren’t offended at all by a little snobbish ribbing.

Jenkins, whose 22-year run as a columnist ended in January 2019, has lived in the same two-story house in Bird Rock since 1983. “I was hired as editor of the La Jolla Light, and [publisher] Phyllis Pfeiffer made it clear to me that I should live in the 92037 zip code,” he says. “We had been living in Burlingame, and the only place we could afford was in Bird Rock, which we saw as sort of a starter community for La Jolla. I only worked at the Light for two years, but we never left that house. We hear our neighbors making dinner left and right, but we’ve never regretted it.”

How would he characterize Bird Rock?

“Bird Rock, to me, is home,” he says. “It’s this accessible community, sort of the entry point to La Jolla, and there’s a kind of raffishness about it, a casualness…. People typically say, ‘I’m from Bird Rock’ because they know if they say, ‘I’m from La Jolla,’ there’s a certain kind of quality there, an assumption, an expectation.”

He credits much of the community’s character, and cohesiveness to the five traffic circles, or “roundabouts,” that were built along La Jolla Boulevard in 2008, along with landscaped medians and corner “bulb-outs” that have significantly narrowed the once-broad boulevard.

“That’s really what makes us a unique community,” Jenkins says. “We have the best circulation plan in San Diego – by far. The roundabouts transformed this community. People get through this strip faster, but they drive slower, and because of the roundabouts you’re constantly looking to see what other drivers are going to do, which also means you’re looking at the shops, looking at the people. It’s a visually sticky place.”

If there’s a downside, he says, it’s that to get into, or out of Bird Rock, you have to drive through crowded, congested La Jolla or Pacific Beach. “It’s a slow getaway,” Jenkins says. “We all spend a lot of ingenuity trying to figure out what’s the best way out of here.”

Logan Jenkins (left) has lived in the same two-story house in Bird Rock since 1983. Rick Farley (right) first surfed the Bird Rock surf break 50 years ago.

City by the Sea

What was originally known as the Bird Rock City by the Sea was established in 1906 by developer Michael Francis Hall, who named his new subdivision after a bird-like rock formation that rises from the sea just west of Bird Rock Avenue. At least, it used to look like a bird. Erosion has stripped away most of its avian features, and a rain storm in December 2010 destroyed an arch over the middle of the rock formation.

The community is bounded by La Canada Drive in the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The southern and eastern borders are less clearly defined. Bird Rock along La Jolla Boulevard stretches south as far as Turquoise Street, but heading east. the border swings up along the alley east of the Park La Jolla Apartments to the alley north of Van Nuys Street. The southeastern border is La Jolla Mesa Drive; then, heading north, Linda Rosa Avenue, Bellevue Avenue and Folsom Drive, three streets that wind around the base of the mountain.

Despite its grand name, Bird Rock City by the Sea remained sparsely populated for many years. Premium lots near the ocean went for about $1200 in 1923, while lots on the east side of La Jolla Boulevard went for $450 ($550 for corner lots). To encourage people to move into the community, a bridge was built out to the actual Bird Rock from the foot of Bird Rock Avenue.

World War II brought a lot of military to San Diego. Bird Rock was home to the Pacific Beach Naval Armed Guard Anti-Aircraft Training Center Guard, located west of La Jolla Boulevard to the beach from Tourmaline Canyon to Midway Street. When the war was over, Bird Rock experienced a significant population boom. According to “Memories of Bird Rock,” an academic paper by Harry A. Marriner, “Most of the admirals and generals lived in more affluent areas of La Jolla, but many commanders, lieutenant commanders and colonels lived in the Bird Rock area. In 1952, the 5200 block of Electric Avenue (Clairmar Garden Apartment rentals) was composed of almost 100 percent junior and mid-level military officers.”

“Five major roundabouts — and several smaller ones — have turned lead-footed lights into gold.”

Bird Rock Elementary School, the community’s first school, was opened in 1952.

Electric Avenue, so named because it was a trolley route, is now known as La Jolla Hermosa Boulevard. It remains about twice as wide as the other streets in the neighborhood.

Today, Bird Rock has a total of 1476 properties and about 4800 residents, according to the Bird Rock Community Council website. On Colima Street, there are two side-by-side lots for sale, at 623 and 627 Colima, totaling 9583 square feet. In January, the price was cut by $100,000 to $2,599,000.

La Jolla Boulevard was, and still is, the community’s main street. It’s home to a three-block commercial district that includes an eclectic mix of businesses — mostly service-oriented, catering to locals — and restaurants. Popular commercial establishments include Bird Rock Fine Wine, Bird Rock Roasters (a coffeehouse that has become a neighborhood gathering spot), the Bird Rock Surf Shop, Bird Rock Pilates, Bahia Don Bravo (a Mexican taco stand, with a full bar, that’s been a fixture for some 30 years), LJ Crafted Wine and, on the more generic side, a CVS drugstore, a Chase bank, and a Starbucks coffeehouse. South of Midway are several multi-story, newer residential-retail complexes that were built in the early 2000s when gentrification claimed a rundown motel and other aging businesses.

Helen Henkel Larson, now 65, lives in the small house on La Jolla Hermosa where she grew up.

At the foot of Bird Rock Avenue is a concrete platform that looks out over the ocean. A staircase leads down to the rocky shore. At low tide, visitors can walk out all the way to Bird Rock — what’s left of it — and beyond. Homes west of La Jolla Boulevard range from original ranch and beach cottages to boxy, bulky “McMansions” that look as though they were shoe-horned into the lots.

East of La Jolla Boulevard, the lots along streets south of Forward and north of Colima are long and narrow and slanted. The original post-WWII homes were built at an angle, facing the street. Newer homes — as on the west side, most of them significantly bigger than their neighbors — also are angled, which gives the neighborhood a distinct look. Walk one direction along any of the north-south side streets — La Jolla Hermosa, Beaumont, Waverly, Bellevue, Taft, Linda Rosa — and it appears the homes are facing you, welcoming you in; walk the other direction and they’re turned away from you, as if they really don’t want you there.

  • Surf’s up
  • Haggerty’s and Swami’s
  • Pacific Palisades
  • San Onofre and Sunset
  • Redondo Beach, L.A.
  • All over La Jolla
  • At Waimea Bay
  • Everybody’s gone surfin’
  • Surfin’ USA
  • — from “Surfin’ USA,”
  • by The Beach Boys.
At LJ Crafted Wines, wine is available only by the glass or in refillable bottles known as “growlers,” which means there are no bottles to produce or discard. “We’re kind of a wine filling station,” says Lowell Jooste, here with his wife Anne.

This summer, it will be 50 years since Rick Farley first surfed Bird Rock surf break, one of the three most famous La Jolla surfing spots. The 72-year-old retired Navy commander grew up in New Jersey and remembers being mesmerized by the 1962 Beach Boys hit “Surfin’ USA.” He vowed to one day make it to La Jolla, and made good on his vow in the summer of 1970 after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.

“By that time I had found out La Jolla was actually part of San Diego, so when I had my choice of duty stations it was an easy pick,” he says. Farley is silver-haired and tanned; he could have been a model for the Marlboro Man from the old cigarette commercials, except he doesn’t smoke, and his transport of choice is a surfboard rather than a horse.

“The very first wave I surfed, in the summer of 1970, was South Bird, the break right off Bird Rock Avenue,” he says. “And it was at that point in time that I decided if nothing else in life, I would try to figure out how I could live in this community.”

Farley earned a degree in clinical psychology in 1981 and four years later, he bought the Bird Rock home on Chelsea where he raised his family. He became an avid surfer, frequenting surf spots all over La Jolla. He surfed Black’s, up north, in his young daredevil days; La Jolla Shores; Hospital and Boomer’s; and Windansea, “which has always had a reputation as being territorial. If you don’t live here, you don’t surf here.” For the last 20 years, he says, he’s pretty much stuck with Bird Rock, “where I have worked diligently these past 35 years to make the reefs and surf breaks a more mellow, accessible place for people to surf.”

It’s not easy to find what locals call the Bird Rock Bike Path.

The community’s signature surf breaks, Farley says, are South Bird and North Bird, on either side of the Bird Rock formation at the foot of Bird Rock Avenue. South of there, he says, “depending on the swell direction and the tide and the wave size,” are several other, smaller surf breaks, with names such as Sewer Line, Cindy’s, and Hannamond’s Rockpile — the latter named after a pioneering surfer who owned a house just across the street from the north end of Calumet Park.

Anne Pickard Major, director of marketing and communications at Cathedral Catholic High, is a Bird Rock native. Born in 1976, she grew up on Camino de la Costa. “Back then, Bird Rock didn’t really have much of a strong community,” she says. “It was known as a surf spot — that’s really what defined Bird Rock. My dad was a surfer, and he was always down there surfing.”

When she was nine, Major says, her parents moved up the hill into the Muirlands neighborhood; a year later her parents divorced, and before long, she and her mom and little brother moved back to Bird Rock, to a series of rental homes on Bellevue and Linda Rosa. “I preferred Bird Rock to La Jolla. It’s a little more quaint, not so prestigious, and with much more of a hometown feel where you know all your neighbors. It wasn’t touristy La Jolla; it was where the locals went.”

Walk one direction along any of the north-south side streets — La Jolla Hermosa, Beaumont, Waverly, Bellevue, Taft, Linda Rosa — and it appears the homes are facing you, welcoming you in; walk the other direction and they’re turned away from you, as if they really don’t want you there.

Hidden bike trail

Major went to University of San Diego High School, the Catholic school that was a precursor to Cathedral. Her brother, however, went to La Jolla High School, and Major recalls a little dirt and asphalt path, tucked between houses, that stretched north for a little more than a mile before ending at Nautilus just west of Fay. Her brother used to take the hidden trail to La Jolla High School, right across Nautilus; Major and her friends used it to bike to the Village.

It’s not easy to find what locals call the Bird Rock Bike Path. Google Maps calls it the La Jolla Bike Path, while the map on my iPhone refers to it as the Fay Avenue Bike Path. On a clear and sunny Wednesday afternoon, I park my car at La Jolla Hermosa and Colima, which a San Diego Magazine article says is the trail’s southern terminus, but I can’t find any sign of it. I walk over onto La Jolla Boulevard and inquire at Bird Rock Roasters, the town’s go-to spot, but all I get from the barista with the long, jet-black hair and a round nose ring is a blank stare. A lady with some sort of coffee concoction in her hand overhears me and says, “Oh, my kids used to take that all the time to school.” She tells me the trail actually starts where La Jolla Hermosa dead-ends at Camino de la Costa. I thank her and proceed on my way.

The trail head is a gaping dirt maw; it runs behind homes on La Jolla Hermosa to the west and Beaumont to the east, separated from the backyard fences by swaths of green on both sides, no doubt due to the recent winter rains. Further north, the trail leaves Bird Rock proper at La Canada and winds through the Upper Hermosa and Barber Tract neighborhoods, as asphalt replaces dirt. Then, to the east, the trail opens up to a glorious verdant hillside studded with an occasional cluster of chaparral prickly pear cacti.

I pass two bicyclists, three people walking their dogs, and a man on a motorized skateboard who is pulling a little boy in a turquoise plastic wagon. Near the end of the trail, at the foot of Palomar, is a bridge over the driveway of a huge hillside mansion.

Portions of the trail are secluded, and despite the nearness of homes, you get the feeling you’re wandering on a remote country trail, miles from the sunny beaches La Jolla is known for. There’s a downside to this, says Corrine Lynch: “I won’t walk it at dusk. There was a woman who was raped on the bike path a few years ago. There are parts that are isolated, and a couple of times I was running and there was a drunk homeless guy squatting in the bushes.”

Small town from the Midwest

Lynch, a 63-year-old account executive with a streaming platform, has lived in Bird Rock since August 2007, when she and her husband Todd and their then-10-year-old son Shane moved into a house on Linda Rosa, near Forward. They had previously lived in a little “beater” house in La Jolla Village that Todd and his sister had inherited from his grandfather. After the house was sold, they took their share of the proceeds and began looking for a new home.

“We had a fifth grader and a big dog,” Lynch recalls. “We were trying to rent for a year, but nobody would rent to us with a 120-pound dog, so we had a hard time finding a house. And then we found this. It was affordable, and it was a great neighborhood for a family with a 10-year-old: it was full of families, and half the kids in Shane’s school lived within a four-block radius. It was such a blessing. It’s a walkable neighborhood, and so much quieter than the Village. I remember the first time I woke up in our new house, I could hear birds. In the old house, it was either waves or traffic. And our old neighborhood was so congested.”

After nearly 13 years, Lynch still loves her Bird Rock neighborhood. “It’s La Jolla, but it doesn’t feel like La Jolla,” she says. “And we’re so close to Pacific Beach that we can easily check out that scene as well — the boardwalk, the beach, the restaurants — and then come back home and be back in our quiet little neighborhood.”

Lynch says her neighborhood is virtually unchanged from the day she moved in. “It’s almost like a small town from the Midwest that somehow got transported right by the ocean,” she says. Around the holiday season, she said, virtually every house on every block is festooned with lights, whereas when she lived in the Village, “we were the only house on our street with Christmas lights.”

“And then there’s this little home-made parade on July 4 on Beaumont, with kids being pulled on red wagons with puppies and streamers and the whole town turns out for it. There are people in their front yards with cups of coffee and bloody Marys, and even a band at the end by the United Methodist church. And every Halloween, this is... probably the most robust trick-or-treating neighborhood in San Diego. If you live on Beaumont, you’re going to go through at least ten huge bags of Costco candy. The guy down the street from me used to be a set designer from New Orleans, and he used to create this fantastic haunted house, with people with chainsaws and a two-story gallows. And he used to go down to Point Loma Seafoods and come back with all these fish heads…. He finally stopped doing it a few years ago after all his kids grew up, but now other people are rising to the occasion.”

Roundabouts and pocket parks

While the residential part of Bird Rock hasn’t changed much since the Lynch family moved there in August 2007, the community’s tiny three-block commercial district has. The biggest change came the following year, with the completion of the five roundabouts on La Jolla Boulevard and several smaller ones along the residential side streets.

For years, locals had complained about cars speeding through their little community along La Jolla Boulevard toward La Jolla Village in the north or Pacific Beach in the south. You could almost hear the harping: “What, we’re not good enough? Why is everyone rushing to pretty La Jolla or fun little Pacific Beach? What’s wrong with us? Marcia, Marcia, Marcia… Say, have you been out to see Bird Rock?”

“The stereotype was that people would be leaving Bully’s [after a night of drinking] and get killed on La Jolla Boulevard because it was just such a dangerous place,” Jenkins recalls.

Traffic lights and four-way stop signs brought congestion, not relief. Around 2000, residents and merchants began talking about solutions, and through a partnership between the city of San Diego and the Bird Rock Traffic Task Force, an idea was hatched: Replace the existing stop lights and stop signs with roundabouts; narrow La Jolla Boulevard from four lanes to two, separated by a landscaped median; and replace curbside parking with diagonal parking spaces.

It took about eight years for the plan to be implemented, but locals say it transformed the community. Just before a public ceremony unveiling the boulevard’s new look in July 2008, Joe LaCava, at the time president of the Bird Rock Community Council and now a candidate for the District 1 San Diego City Council seat, told the La Jolla Light, “We have received national acclaim for our new eco-friendly street design. Bird Rock is going green, replacing thousands of feet of asphalt with groundcover, shrubs and trees. Those plants, along with other changes, including reducing car speed and trading stop signs for yield signs, mean cleaner air.”

Logan Jenkins wrote glowingly of the roundabouts in an August 2015 Union-Tribune column. “One of the mysteries of my dumb-lucky life is why more neighborhoods aren’t as fortunate as mine,” he wrote. “Not one stoplight — or even a stop sign — distorts the drive through our commercial zone.

“For going on seven years, Bird Rock has performed in a San Diego pilot that, in my view anyway, could not be more sublimely successful. In a form of asphalt alchemy, five major roundabouts — and several smaller ones — have turned lead-footed lights into gold. What was once a four-lane, stop-and-start speedway is now the calmest, cleanest, and prettiest stretch of commercial road in San Diego County. About 22,000 vehicles daily pass through Bird Rock, an eclectic enclave between downtown La Jolla and Pacific Beach. But here’s the thing. Vehicles drive much slower than before, but on average they get through faster…”

Aside from the roundabouts, Bird Rock boasts 11 “pocket” parks. The biggest is Calumet Park, along the oceanfront Calumet Avenue. The others are generally a few hundred square feet at most, and tucked into the foot of streets that end at the edge of the cliffs towering over the ocean. The parks have varied landscaping, but all have at least one place to sit and gaze out over the ocean.

The pocket parks of Bird Rock are the legacy of Helene Frick Henkel, a community activist who died in January 1992 at the age of 69. The La Jolla Light, in her obituary, called Henkel “an eloquent advocate for coastal preservation, park establishment, and planned community development...Henkel [believed that] every resident of La Jolla should be within walking distance of a marine vista.”

One of the parks, at Chelsea, has a plaque honoring Henkel. It’s right below a bench, overlooking the ocean. “Coastal Park Advocate, Community Leader. Her spirit lives on.”

Her daughter Helen Henkel Larson, now 65, lives in the small house on La Jolla Hermosa where she grew up. She arrives at the Bird Rock Starbucks wearing a broad-rimmed straw hat which shades her rosy cheeks. She’s carrying a stack of old photos showing her neighborhood in the 1950s. The most remarkable thing about the old photographs is that La Jolla Boulevard had virtually no buildings. People like the Henkels, who lived on the residential streets to the east, had a clear shot to the cliffs and the tidepools down below.

The Bird Rock of her youth, Larson says, “was a place where I always felt very safe, and a place where I could also have lots of adventures. I grew up going down to the tidepools, turning over rocks and finding sea slugs and brittle stars and limpids, and once in a while an octopus arm would come out. Henkel was born in April 1954 at the old Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, for which the famed surf break is named; she spent the first 21 years of her life in Bird Rock before going off to college, first at the University of California, San Diego and then at the University of California, Davis. Now a self-employed writer and editor, she taught at Humboldt State University for more than a decade and returned to her childhood home in 1996, with her husband Leo, a photographer.

Whenever people have asked her where she’s from, Larson says, her answer is always Bird Rock, never La Jolla. “If you say you’re from La Jolla, you get pigeonholed as a certain type of person,” she says. “My father was lower middle-class, a blue-collar worker, and I didn’t go to Bishop’s.”

I accompany Larson on a walking tour of the pocket parks. We sit beside one another on the bench at Chelsea Park, informally known among locals as “Helene Henkel Park.”

“When the park first opened, a neighbor who didn’t like it kept throwing the wooden bench into the water,” Larson tells me. “So they poured cement, stuck the bench in that and my mom sat on the bench until it hardened.”

Commercial hits and misses

Despite the roundabouts, medians, and other improvements to the stretch of La Jolla Boulevard that runs through Bird Rock, there are a surprising number of vacant storefronts – many of them in the multi-story “mixed use” residential-retail complexes that are still being built on the west side of the street. “Like we need more of those,” Lynch says dismissively. “You see all these little shops come and go. They just don’t seem to make it. I needed new running shoes and went to the Just Run store instead of Roadrunner. I’d rather pay $20 more and keep this store in business, because I can’t look at any more empty storefronts.”

It’s the same with restaurants, she says: “One thing I never figured out is why some restaurants are absolute hits and everything else is a miss. Bird Rock Roasters has a line out the door at any time. LJ Crafted Wines, the same thing. People are out there drinking wine, even at four in the afternoon. But almost everywhere else, there is sort of a blight. That retail center where the French Pastry Shop used to be has been primarily vacant for the whole time I’ve lived here, even though they keep renovating it.”

Lowell Jooste, who opened LJ Crafted Wines with his wife Anne in February 2015, is puzzled by the vacancies. “I wish I knew,” he says. “You have an amazing sense of community, but the customers are quite discerning. They want quality, and you need to do something special.”

At LJ Crafted Wines, wine is available only by the glass or in refillable bottles known as “growlers,” which means there are no bottles to produce or discard. “We’re kind of a wine filling station,” Jooste says. “We buy our grapes in Napa and Sonoma, make the wine there, and then when the wine is ready, they ship the barrels down here and we fill the growlers directly from the barrel. It’s very much a community business. If we have, say, 900 wine club members and we do a heat map, it’s very concentrated in about a one-mile radius.”

A native of South Africa, Jooste and his wife moved to San Diego in 2012 and live a block away, on the west side of La Jolla Boulevard. He takes as much pride in his business’s green footprint as he does in the quality of his wine. “Since we opened, we’ve gone through about 240 barrels of wine,” Jooste says. “That’s the same as 70,000 wine bottles we’ve saved from production and disposal.”

The most recent Bird Rock restaurant to close is Voce Del Mare at 5721 La Jolla Boulevard, just north of Bird Rock Avenue, but in this case, there was a clear-cut reason: owner Daniel Dorado was arrested on rape and other sex charges in March 2018. In late December 2019, according to a KUSI news report, Dorado was convicted of 20 felony counts related to sexually assaulting intoxicated or unconscious women over a nine-year period. In closing arguments, according to a Fox 5 news story, “the prosecution said … Dorado met the women, who ranged in age from 22 to 58, at local bars and restaurants. Dorado set up some of the meetings under the guise of a job interview, the prosecutor said… Dorado’s defense attorney has argued that the sexual encounters were consensual and that the women were not drugged but rather drank too much alcohol and made poor decisions…”

Retail lease rates in Bird Rock are generally 20 percent lower than in La Jolla Village, which is more of a shopping and dining destination, said Jeff Taich, a veteran commercial realtor who has been renting space throughout La Jolla for the last 30 years. Rents have been climbing, keeping up with higher property values, but he doesn’t expect the spiking to continue. “Amazon and other e-commerce retailers are killing retailers everywhere,” he says. “Retailers are barely hanging on, and landlords can’t keep raising rents because the demand simply isn’t there.”

Currently, office/retail space in a building at 7509 Draper Avenue, in the heart of La Jolla Village, is going for $3.40 to $3.50 per square foot per month, according to LoopNet, while retail space at 909 Prospect Street is going for $5 per square foot. Further south, in a newly renovated mixed-use building at 5685-5699 La Jolla Boulevard, on what’s described as a “prominent corner in Bird Rock’s vibrant commercial district,” retail space can be had for $2.50 to $3.25 per square foot. But some landlords in Bird Rock continue to hold out for higher rental rates, Taich said, which he believes is a mistake. “If you look at the building where the UPS store is in, right across from Starbucks, that’s 80% empty,” he said. “The owner told me he’d rather get the tax write-off.”

Bird Rock Bandits

Elsewhere on the crime front, Bird Rock is known for one of San Diego’s most notorious murders, even though the actual act took place a few miles north, in the Village. On the evening of May 24, 2007, five La Jolla High School graduates who called themselves the Bird Rock Bandits got into a fight with Emery Kauanui Jr., a 24-year-old professional surfer.

They had been drinking in the La Jolla Brew House at 7536 Fay Avenue when Kauanui allegedly spilled a drink on one of the Bandits, Eric House. A bouncer kicked Kauanui and House out of the bar; Kauanui was driven home to his mother’s house on Draper Avenue by his girlfriend.

The Bird Rock Bandits followed and a scuffle ensued; one of House’s friends, Seth Cravens, punched Kauanui in the jaw. Kauanui fell backward and struck his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. He died in a hospital four days later.

The five Bird Rock Bandits — characterized in court as a hard-partying group of surfing buddies — were arrested and charged with murder. Cravens was the only one who went to trial; he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in state prison. House and two others pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter; a fifth Bird Rock Bandit pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact. All spent time in prison.

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“The very first wave I surfed, in the summer of 1970, was South Bird, the break right off Bird Rock Avenue,” says Rick Farley. “And it was at that point in time that I decided if nothing else in life, I would try to figure out how I could live in this community.”
“The very first wave I surfed, in the summer of 1970, was South Bird, the break right off Bird Rock Avenue,” says Rick Farley. “And it was at that point in time that I decided if nothing else in life, I would try to figure out how I could live in this community.”

Bird Rock is the Jan Brady of coastal San Diego. To the south capers playful, silly Pacific Beach. To the north stands La Jolla, elegant and proper. And though Bird Rock is officially one of the 16 neighborhoods that constitute the pricey paradise of La Jolla, the little community has always had something of an inferiority complex, much like the middle sister in the 1960s sitcom The Brady Bunch, who grew up in the shadow of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

Some residents’ feathers will ruffle at references to Bird Rock as “La Jolla Lite” or “Baja La Jolla,” although longtime residents like Logan Jenkins, the former San Diego Union-Tribune columnist, aren’t offended at all by a little snobbish ribbing.

Jenkins, whose 22-year run as a columnist ended in January 2019, has lived in the same two-story house in Bird Rock since 1983. “I was hired as editor of the La Jolla Light, and [publisher] Phyllis Pfeiffer made it clear to me that I should live in the 92037 zip code,” he says. “We had been living in Burlingame, and the only place we could afford was in Bird Rock, which we saw as sort of a starter community for La Jolla. I only worked at the Light for two years, but we never left that house. We hear our neighbors making dinner left and right, but we’ve never regretted it.”

How would he characterize Bird Rock?

“Bird Rock, to me, is home,” he says. “It’s this accessible community, sort of the entry point to La Jolla, and there’s a kind of raffishness about it, a casualness…. People typically say, ‘I’m from Bird Rock’ because they know if they say, ‘I’m from La Jolla,’ there’s a certain kind of quality there, an assumption, an expectation.”

He credits much of the community’s character, and cohesiveness to the five traffic circles, or “roundabouts,” that were built along La Jolla Boulevard in 2008, along with landscaped medians and corner “bulb-outs” that have significantly narrowed the once-broad boulevard.

“That’s really what makes us a unique community,” Jenkins says. “We have the best circulation plan in San Diego – by far. The roundabouts transformed this community. People get through this strip faster, but they drive slower, and because of the roundabouts you’re constantly looking to see what other drivers are going to do, which also means you’re looking at the shops, looking at the people. It’s a visually sticky place.”

If there’s a downside, he says, it’s that to get into, or out of Bird Rock, you have to drive through crowded, congested La Jolla or Pacific Beach. “It’s a slow getaway,” Jenkins says. “We all spend a lot of ingenuity trying to figure out what’s the best way out of here.”

Logan Jenkins (left) has lived in the same two-story house in Bird Rock since 1983. Rick Farley (right) first surfed the Bird Rock surf break 50 years ago.

City by the Sea

What was originally known as the Bird Rock City by the Sea was established in 1906 by developer Michael Francis Hall, who named his new subdivision after a bird-like rock formation that rises from the sea just west of Bird Rock Avenue. At least, it used to look like a bird. Erosion has stripped away most of its avian features, and a rain storm in December 2010 destroyed an arch over the middle of the rock formation.

The community is bounded by La Canada Drive in the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The southern and eastern borders are less clearly defined. Bird Rock along La Jolla Boulevard stretches south as far as Turquoise Street, but heading east. the border swings up along the alley east of the Park La Jolla Apartments to the alley north of Van Nuys Street. The southeastern border is La Jolla Mesa Drive; then, heading north, Linda Rosa Avenue, Bellevue Avenue and Folsom Drive, three streets that wind around the base of the mountain.

Despite its grand name, Bird Rock City by the Sea remained sparsely populated for many years. Premium lots near the ocean went for about $1200 in 1923, while lots on the east side of La Jolla Boulevard went for $450 ($550 for corner lots). To encourage people to move into the community, a bridge was built out to the actual Bird Rock from the foot of Bird Rock Avenue.

World War II brought a lot of military to San Diego. Bird Rock was home to the Pacific Beach Naval Armed Guard Anti-Aircraft Training Center Guard, located west of La Jolla Boulevard to the beach from Tourmaline Canyon to Midway Street. When the war was over, Bird Rock experienced a significant population boom. According to “Memories of Bird Rock,” an academic paper by Harry A. Marriner, “Most of the admirals and generals lived in more affluent areas of La Jolla, but many commanders, lieutenant commanders and colonels lived in the Bird Rock area. In 1952, the 5200 block of Electric Avenue (Clairmar Garden Apartment rentals) was composed of almost 100 percent junior and mid-level military officers.”

“Five major roundabouts — and several smaller ones — have turned lead-footed lights into gold.”

Bird Rock Elementary School, the community’s first school, was opened in 1952.

Electric Avenue, so named because it was a trolley route, is now known as La Jolla Hermosa Boulevard. It remains about twice as wide as the other streets in the neighborhood.

Today, Bird Rock has a total of 1476 properties and about 4800 residents, according to the Bird Rock Community Council website. On Colima Street, there are two side-by-side lots for sale, at 623 and 627 Colima, totaling 9583 square feet. In January, the price was cut by $100,000 to $2,599,000.

La Jolla Boulevard was, and still is, the community’s main street. It’s home to a three-block commercial district that includes an eclectic mix of businesses — mostly service-oriented, catering to locals — and restaurants. Popular commercial establishments include Bird Rock Fine Wine, Bird Rock Roasters (a coffeehouse that has become a neighborhood gathering spot), the Bird Rock Surf Shop, Bird Rock Pilates, Bahia Don Bravo (a Mexican taco stand, with a full bar, that’s been a fixture for some 30 years), LJ Crafted Wine and, on the more generic side, a CVS drugstore, a Chase bank, and a Starbucks coffeehouse. South of Midway are several multi-story, newer residential-retail complexes that were built in the early 2000s when gentrification claimed a rundown motel and other aging businesses.

Helen Henkel Larson, now 65, lives in the small house on La Jolla Hermosa where she grew up.

At the foot of Bird Rock Avenue is a concrete platform that looks out over the ocean. A staircase leads down to the rocky shore. At low tide, visitors can walk out all the way to Bird Rock — what’s left of it — and beyond. Homes west of La Jolla Boulevard range from original ranch and beach cottages to boxy, bulky “McMansions” that look as though they were shoe-horned into the lots.

East of La Jolla Boulevard, the lots along streets south of Forward and north of Colima are long and narrow and slanted. The original post-WWII homes were built at an angle, facing the street. Newer homes — as on the west side, most of them significantly bigger than their neighbors — also are angled, which gives the neighborhood a distinct look. Walk one direction along any of the north-south side streets — La Jolla Hermosa, Beaumont, Waverly, Bellevue, Taft, Linda Rosa — and it appears the homes are facing you, welcoming you in; walk the other direction and they’re turned away from you, as if they really don’t want you there.

  • Surf’s up
  • Haggerty’s and Swami’s
  • Pacific Palisades
  • San Onofre and Sunset
  • Redondo Beach, L.A.
  • All over La Jolla
  • At Waimea Bay
  • Everybody’s gone surfin’
  • Surfin’ USA
  • — from “Surfin’ USA,”
  • by The Beach Boys.
At LJ Crafted Wines, wine is available only by the glass or in refillable bottles known as “growlers,” which means there are no bottles to produce or discard. “We’re kind of a wine filling station,” says Lowell Jooste, here with his wife Anne.

This summer, it will be 50 years since Rick Farley first surfed Bird Rock surf break, one of the three most famous La Jolla surfing spots. The 72-year-old retired Navy commander grew up in New Jersey and remembers being mesmerized by the 1962 Beach Boys hit “Surfin’ USA.” He vowed to one day make it to La Jolla, and made good on his vow in the summer of 1970 after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.

“By that time I had found out La Jolla was actually part of San Diego, so when I had my choice of duty stations it was an easy pick,” he says. Farley is silver-haired and tanned; he could have been a model for the Marlboro Man from the old cigarette commercials, except he doesn’t smoke, and his transport of choice is a surfboard rather than a horse.

“The very first wave I surfed, in the summer of 1970, was South Bird, the break right off Bird Rock Avenue,” he says. “And it was at that point in time that I decided if nothing else in life, I would try to figure out how I could live in this community.”

Farley earned a degree in clinical psychology in 1981 and four years later, he bought the Bird Rock home on Chelsea where he raised his family. He became an avid surfer, frequenting surf spots all over La Jolla. He surfed Black’s, up north, in his young daredevil days; La Jolla Shores; Hospital and Boomer’s; and Windansea, “which has always had a reputation as being territorial. If you don’t live here, you don’t surf here.” For the last 20 years, he says, he’s pretty much stuck with Bird Rock, “where I have worked diligently these past 35 years to make the reefs and surf breaks a more mellow, accessible place for people to surf.”

It’s not easy to find what locals call the Bird Rock Bike Path.

The community’s signature surf breaks, Farley says, are South Bird and North Bird, on either side of the Bird Rock formation at the foot of Bird Rock Avenue. South of there, he says, “depending on the swell direction and the tide and the wave size,” are several other, smaller surf breaks, with names such as Sewer Line, Cindy’s, and Hannamond’s Rockpile — the latter named after a pioneering surfer who owned a house just across the street from the north end of Calumet Park.

Anne Pickard Major, director of marketing and communications at Cathedral Catholic High, is a Bird Rock native. Born in 1976, she grew up on Camino de la Costa. “Back then, Bird Rock didn’t really have much of a strong community,” she says. “It was known as a surf spot — that’s really what defined Bird Rock. My dad was a surfer, and he was always down there surfing.”

When she was nine, Major says, her parents moved up the hill into the Muirlands neighborhood; a year later her parents divorced, and before long, she and her mom and little brother moved back to Bird Rock, to a series of rental homes on Bellevue and Linda Rosa. “I preferred Bird Rock to La Jolla. It’s a little more quaint, not so prestigious, and with much more of a hometown feel where you know all your neighbors. It wasn’t touristy La Jolla; it was where the locals went.”

Walk one direction along any of the north-south side streets — La Jolla Hermosa, Beaumont, Waverly, Bellevue, Taft, Linda Rosa — and it appears the homes are facing you, welcoming you in; walk the other direction and they’re turned away from you, as if they really don’t want you there.

Hidden bike trail

Major went to University of San Diego High School, the Catholic school that was a precursor to Cathedral. Her brother, however, went to La Jolla High School, and Major recalls a little dirt and asphalt path, tucked between houses, that stretched north for a little more than a mile before ending at Nautilus just west of Fay. Her brother used to take the hidden trail to La Jolla High School, right across Nautilus; Major and her friends used it to bike to the Village.

It’s not easy to find what locals call the Bird Rock Bike Path. Google Maps calls it the La Jolla Bike Path, while the map on my iPhone refers to it as the Fay Avenue Bike Path. On a clear and sunny Wednesday afternoon, I park my car at La Jolla Hermosa and Colima, which a San Diego Magazine article says is the trail’s southern terminus, but I can’t find any sign of it. I walk over onto La Jolla Boulevard and inquire at Bird Rock Roasters, the town’s go-to spot, but all I get from the barista with the long, jet-black hair and a round nose ring is a blank stare. A lady with some sort of coffee concoction in her hand overhears me and says, “Oh, my kids used to take that all the time to school.” She tells me the trail actually starts where La Jolla Hermosa dead-ends at Camino de la Costa. I thank her and proceed on my way.

The trail head is a gaping dirt maw; it runs behind homes on La Jolla Hermosa to the west and Beaumont to the east, separated from the backyard fences by swaths of green on both sides, no doubt due to the recent winter rains. Further north, the trail leaves Bird Rock proper at La Canada and winds through the Upper Hermosa and Barber Tract neighborhoods, as asphalt replaces dirt. Then, to the east, the trail opens up to a glorious verdant hillside studded with an occasional cluster of chaparral prickly pear cacti.

I pass two bicyclists, three people walking their dogs, and a man on a motorized skateboard who is pulling a little boy in a turquoise plastic wagon. Near the end of the trail, at the foot of Palomar, is a bridge over the driveway of a huge hillside mansion.

Portions of the trail are secluded, and despite the nearness of homes, you get the feeling you’re wandering on a remote country trail, miles from the sunny beaches La Jolla is known for. There’s a downside to this, says Corrine Lynch: “I won’t walk it at dusk. There was a woman who was raped on the bike path a few years ago. There are parts that are isolated, and a couple of times I was running and there was a drunk homeless guy squatting in the bushes.”

Small town from the Midwest

Lynch, a 63-year-old account executive with a streaming platform, has lived in Bird Rock since August 2007, when she and her husband Todd and their then-10-year-old son Shane moved into a house on Linda Rosa, near Forward. They had previously lived in a little “beater” house in La Jolla Village that Todd and his sister had inherited from his grandfather. After the house was sold, they took their share of the proceeds and began looking for a new home.

“We had a fifth grader and a big dog,” Lynch recalls. “We were trying to rent for a year, but nobody would rent to us with a 120-pound dog, so we had a hard time finding a house. And then we found this. It was affordable, and it was a great neighborhood for a family with a 10-year-old: it was full of families, and half the kids in Shane’s school lived within a four-block radius. It was such a blessing. It’s a walkable neighborhood, and so much quieter than the Village. I remember the first time I woke up in our new house, I could hear birds. In the old house, it was either waves or traffic. And our old neighborhood was so congested.”

After nearly 13 years, Lynch still loves her Bird Rock neighborhood. “It’s La Jolla, but it doesn’t feel like La Jolla,” she says. “And we’re so close to Pacific Beach that we can easily check out that scene as well — the boardwalk, the beach, the restaurants — and then come back home and be back in our quiet little neighborhood.”

Lynch says her neighborhood is virtually unchanged from the day she moved in. “It’s almost like a small town from the Midwest that somehow got transported right by the ocean,” she says. Around the holiday season, she said, virtually every house on every block is festooned with lights, whereas when she lived in the Village, “we were the only house on our street with Christmas lights.”

“And then there’s this little home-made parade on July 4 on Beaumont, with kids being pulled on red wagons with puppies and streamers and the whole town turns out for it. There are people in their front yards with cups of coffee and bloody Marys, and even a band at the end by the United Methodist church. And every Halloween, this is... probably the most robust trick-or-treating neighborhood in San Diego. If you live on Beaumont, you’re going to go through at least ten huge bags of Costco candy. The guy down the street from me used to be a set designer from New Orleans, and he used to create this fantastic haunted house, with people with chainsaws and a two-story gallows. And he used to go down to Point Loma Seafoods and come back with all these fish heads…. He finally stopped doing it a few years ago after all his kids grew up, but now other people are rising to the occasion.”

Roundabouts and pocket parks

While the residential part of Bird Rock hasn’t changed much since the Lynch family moved there in August 2007, the community’s tiny three-block commercial district has. The biggest change came the following year, with the completion of the five roundabouts on La Jolla Boulevard and several smaller ones along the residential side streets.

For years, locals had complained about cars speeding through their little community along La Jolla Boulevard toward La Jolla Village in the north or Pacific Beach in the south. You could almost hear the harping: “What, we’re not good enough? Why is everyone rushing to pretty La Jolla or fun little Pacific Beach? What’s wrong with us? Marcia, Marcia, Marcia… Say, have you been out to see Bird Rock?”

“The stereotype was that people would be leaving Bully’s [after a night of drinking] and get killed on La Jolla Boulevard because it was just such a dangerous place,” Jenkins recalls.

Traffic lights and four-way stop signs brought congestion, not relief. Around 2000, residents and merchants began talking about solutions, and through a partnership between the city of San Diego and the Bird Rock Traffic Task Force, an idea was hatched: Replace the existing stop lights and stop signs with roundabouts; narrow La Jolla Boulevard from four lanes to two, separated by a landscaped median; and replace curbside parking with diagonal parking spaces.

It took about eight years for the plan to be implemented, but locals say it transformed the community. Just before a public ceremony unveiling the boulevard’s new look in July 2008, Joe LaCava, at the time president of the Bird Rock Community Council and now a candidate for the District 1 San Diego City Council seat, told the La Jolla Light, “We have received national acclaim for our new eco-friendly street design. Bird Rock is going green, replacing thousands of feet of asphalt with groundcover, shrubs and trees. Those plants, along with other changes, including reducing car speed and trading stop signs for yield signs, mean cleaner air.”

Logan Jenkins wrote glowingly of the roundabouts in an August 2015 Union-Tribune column. “One of the mysteries of my dumb-lucky life is why more neighborhoods aren’t as fortunate as mine,” he wrote. “Not one stoplight — or even a stop sign — distorts the drive through our commercial zone.

“For going on seven years, Bird Rock has performed in a San Diego pilot that, in my view anyway, could not be more sublimely successful. In a form of asphalt alchemy, five major roundabouts — and several smaller ones — have turned lead-footed lights into gold. What was once a four-lane, stop-and-start speedway is now the calmest, cleanest, and prettiest stretch of commercial road in San Diego County. About 22,000 vehicles daily pass through Bird Rock, an eclectic enclave between downtown La Jolla and Pacific Beach. But here’s the thing. Vehicles drive much slower than before, but on average they get through faster…”

Aside from the roundabouts, Bird Rock boasts 11 “pocket” parks. The biggest is Calumet Park, along the oceanfront Calumet Avenue. The others are generally a few hundred square feet at most, and tucked into the foot of streets that end at the edge of the cliffs towering over the ocean. The parks have varied landscaping, but all have at least one place to sit and gaze out over the ocean.

The pocket parks of Bird Rock are the legacy of Helene Frick Henkel, a community activist who died in January 1992 at the age of 69. The La Jolla Light, in her obituary, called Henkel “an eloquent advocate for coastal preservation, park establishment, and planned community development...Henkel [believed that] every resident of La Jolla should be within walking distance of a marine vista.”

One of the parks, at Chelsea, has a plaque honoring Henkel. It’s right below a bench, overlooking the ocean. “Coastal Park Advocate, Community Leader. Her spirit lives on.”

Her daughter Helen Henkel Larson, now 65, lives in the small house on La Jolla Hermosa where she grew up. She arrives at the Bird Rock Starbucks wearing a broad-rimmed straw hat which shades her rosy cheeks. She’s carrying a stack of old photos showing her neighborhood in the 1950s. The most remarkable thing about the old photographs is that La Jolla Boulevard had virtually no buildings. People like the Henkels, who lived on the residential streets to the east, had a clear shot to the cliffs and the tidepools down below.

The Bird Rock of her youth, Larson says, “was a place where I always felt very safe, and a place where I could also have lots of adventures. I grew up going down to the tidepools, turning over rocks and finding sea slugs and brittle stars and limpids, and once in a while an octopus arm would come out. Henkel was born in April 1954 at the old Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, for which the famed surf break is named; she spent the first 21 years of her life in Bird Rock before going off to college, first at the University of California, San Diego and then at the University of California, Davis. Now a self-employed writer and editor, she taught at Humboldt State University for more than a decade and returned to her childhood home in 1996, with her husband Leo, a photographer.

Whenever people have asked her where she’s from, Larson says, her answer is always Bird Rock, never La Jolla. “If you say you’re from La Jolla, you get pigeonholed as a certain type of person,” she says. “My father was lower middle-class, a blue-collar worker, and I didn’t go to Bishop’s.”

I accompany Larson on a walking tour of the pocket parks. We sit beside one another on the bench at Chelsea Park, informally known among locals as “Helene Henkel Park.”

“When the park first opened, a neighbor who didn’t like it kept throwing the wooden bench into the water,” Larson tells me. “So they poured cement, stuck the bench in that and my mom sat on the bench until it hardened.”

Commercial hits and misses

Despite the roundabouts, medians, and other improvements to the stretch of La Jolla Boulevard that runs through Bird Rock, there are a surprising number of vacant storefronts – many of them in the multi-story “mixed use” residential-retail complexes that are still being built on the west side of the street. “Like we need more of those,” Lynch says dismissively. “You see all these little shops come and go. They just don’t seem to make it. I needed new running shoes and went to the Just Run store instead of Roadrunner. I’d rather pay $20 more and keep this store in business, because I can’t look at any more empty storefronts.”

It’s the same with restaurants, she says: “One thing I never figured out is why some restaurants are absolute hits and everything else is a miss. Bird Rock Roasters has a line out the door at any time. LJ Crafted Wines, the same thing. People are out there drinking wine, even at four in the afternoon. But almost everywhere else, there is sort of a blight. That retail center where the French Pastry Shop used to be has been primarily vacant for the whole time I’ve lived here, even though they keep renovating it.”

Lowell Jooste, who opened LJ Crafted Wines with his wife Anne in February 2015, is puzzled by the vacancies. “I wish I knew,” he says. “You have an amazing sense of community, but the customers are quite discerning. They want quality, and you need to do something special.”

At LJ Crafted Wines, wine is available only by the glass or in refillable bottles known as “growlers,” which means there are no bottles to produce or discard. “We’re kind of a wine filling station,” Jooste says. “We buy our grapes in Napa and Sonoma, make the wine there, and then when the wine is ready, they ship the barrels down here and we fill the growlers directly from the barrel. It’s very much a community business. If we have, say, 900 wine club members and we do a heat map, it’s very concentrated in about a one-mile radius.”

A native of South Africa, Jooste and his wife moved to San Diego in 2012 and live a block away, on the west side of La Jolla Boulevard. He takes as much pride in his business’s green footprint as he does in the quality of his wine. “Since we opened, we’ve gone through about 240 barrels of wine,” Jooste says. “That’s the same as 70,000 wine bottles we’ve saved from production and disposal.”

The most recent Bird Rock restaurant to close is Voce Del Mare at 5721 La Jolla Boulevard, just north of Bird Rock Avenue, but in this case, there was a clear-cut reason: owner Daniel Dorado was arrested on rape and other sex charges in March 2018. In late December 2019, according to a KUSI news report, Dorado was convicted of 20 felony counts related to sexually assaulting intoxicated or unconscious women over a nine-year period. In closing arguments, according to a Fox 5 news story, “the prosecution said … Dorado met the women, who ranged in age from 22 to 58, at local bars and restaurants. Dorado set up some of the meetings under the guise of a job interview, the prosecutor said… Dorado’s defense attorney has argued that the sexual encounters were consensual and that the women were not drugged but rather drank too much alcohol and made poor decisions…”

Retail lease rates in Bird Rock are generally 20 percent lower than in La Jolla Village, which is more of a shopping and dining destination, said Jeff Taich, a veteran commercial realtor who has been renting space throughout La Jolla for the last 30 years. Rents have been climbing, keeping up with higher property values, but he doesn’t expect the spiking to continue. “Amazon and other e-commerce retailers are killing retailers everywhere,” he says. “Retailers are barely hanging on, and landlords can’t keep raising rents because the demand simply isn’t there.”

Currently, office/retail space in a building at 7509 Draper Avenue, in the heart of La Jolla Village, is going for $3.40 to $3.50 per square foot per month, according to LoopNet, while retail space at 909 Prospect Street is going for $5 per square foot. Further south, in a newly renovated mixed-use building at 5685-5699 La Jolla Boulevard, on what’s described as a “prominent corner in Bird Rock’s vibrant commercial district,” retail space can be had for $2.50 to $3.25 per square foot. But some landlords in Bird Rock continue to hold out for higher rental rates, Taich said, which he believes is a mistake. “If you look at the building where the UPS store is in, right across from Starbucks, that’s 80% empty,” he said. “The owner told me he’d rather get the tax write-off.”

Bird Rock Bandits

Elsewhere on the crime front, Bird Rock is known for one of San Diego’s most notorious murders, even though the actual act took place a few miles north, in the Village. On the evening of May 24, 2007, five La Jolla High School graduates who called themselves the Bird Rock Bandits got into a fight with Emery Kauanui Jr., a 24-year-old professional surfer.

They had been drinking in the La Jolla Brew House at 7536 Fay Avenue when Kauanui allegedly spilled a drink on one of the Bandits, Eric House. A bouncer kicked Kauanui and House out of the bar; Kauanui was driven home to his mother’s house on Draper Avenue by his girlfriend.

The Bird Rock Bandits followed and a scuffle ensued; one of House’s friends, Seth Cravens, punched Kauanui in the jaw. Kauanui fell backward and struck his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. He died in a hospital four days later.

The five Bird Rock Bandits — characterized in court as a hard-partying group of surfing buddies — were arrested and charged with murder. Cravens was the only one who went to trial; he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in state prison. House and two others pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter; a fifth Bird Rock Bandit pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact. All spent time in prison.

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