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939 Coast Blvd: A history of the controversial building in La Jolla

sidewalk view looking up at one of la jolla's most controversial buildings located at 939 coast blvd.

When the Huntley Building began construction in 1964, reality set in for La Jollans that its unnecessary intrusion would reshape the beautiful skyline of La Jolla.

But the building didn’t go up without a fight, and it started a movement that would continue to preserve the views of La Jolla to this day. 

Plotting the takeover

Together with a group of Texas investors, developer Orville P. Huntley set their sites on a string of cottages along Coast Boulevard. They began acquiring each with big plans that would forever transform the La Jolla skyline, and residents say it all happened quickly. The evictions of residents and subsequent demolitions and excavation of the site caused an uproar in the community, with protesters vehemently opposing the progress. Still, there wasn’t anything they could do to stop it–construction was underway in a big way!

How was it approved?

Today, it doesn’t make sense to see a building standing so tall in La Jolla as we now have building height limitations. But, in those days, developers weren’t required to inform the public about their plans, let alone obtain approvals, permits, or environmental reviews, so in a sense, it was a free for all for anyone not particularly concerned with preserving La Jolla’s small village charm.  As early as 1962, concerns about the potentiality of high-rise buildings were raised by the La Jolla Town Council, a group comprised of property owners. Because they had no legal authority, the council reached out to the then-San Diego Mayor, Charles Dail, to help them with a plan. Dail eventually approved a thirty-day moratorium on any high-rise construction permits. At the same time, his appointed committee could gather to study the effects of high rises on the city.

Fighting the good fight–over height

The La Jolla Town Council followed in the footsteps of their predecessors from the Village Improvement Committee, which was founded in the 1890s under the guidance of prominent community figure Ellen Browning Scripps. Community planning groups like La Jollans, Inc. also joined in on the efforts. They were encouraged to get involved in local government and advocate and plan for La Jolla’s orderly development, which included consideration for building heights.  Sadly, the thirty-day moratorium had expired before anything could be established to prevent high rises, and the construction of Huntley’s sixteen-story condominium at 939 Coast Boulevard had begun. Its construction started to bring more tall buildings into the area and lit a fire under the community and all those fighting this fight. The breakdown in the area’s different zoning was also a concern. A document titled Citizens Coordinate & The Battle for City Planning in San Diego explains that some residential areas of La Jolla were zoned R-4, which technically meant that 100 dwelling units per acre were allowed. Some residents caught on to this and decided to have their land rezoned from R-4 to R-1, a single-unit residence. It was a smart move and one that would protect the future of the land and prevent further attempts to build up and detract from the neighborhood’s character.

Coastal Height Limits and inspiration from our coastal neighbors

Community groups knew they had to do something to put an end to large buildings, and fighting for the height limitations was the clear answer.  After drawing inspiration from our coastal neighbors in Point Loma and up North in San Francisco and their 30-60 foot height limitation ordinances, La Jolla sprung into action. The La Jolla Height petition was started and called for a 50-foot height limitation until community organizers could work with the City Planning Department to develop a long-term plan. Proponents of the height limitations argued that high rises would increase the population density and inevitably negatively impact traffic circulation, parking, schooling, sewer and water requirements, and emergency and protective services. 

Saving La Jolla then and now

On March 8, 1966, La Jolla supporters and petitioners of the height ordinance celebrated as the City Council passed the La Jolla Height Limitation Ordinance with a 2-year moratorium for any construction over 50 feet. The plan was approved and adopted by April 1967 and waited for final implementation that relied upon the approval of the new zoning ordinance that would lower the number of dwelling units per acre in residential areas.  At the City Council hearing, Robert Jackson, president of La Jollans, Inc., said, “The La Jolla Plan is one of the earliest residential community plans to come before you… It is supported by the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the community…If you vote for it, you will have made an important contribution to the future well-being of our city and will have set an example for other cities to follow.”  And so it was, the new down-zoning ordinance was finally approved in November, and The La Jolla plan officially implemented its height limitation. In 1972, a new 30-foot height limit was initiated and approved with the passage of Proposition D, and it still remains in place to this day, keeping our coastal views beautiful and open without obstruction.

The 939 Coast Blvd building lives on

The 939 building is by no means an engineering masterpiece and, without a doubt, clashes with the surrounding beauty of La Jolla. Although its construction couldn’t be stopped, it was the catalyst that created a fiery movement that passed essential height ordinances that prevented buildings like 939 from disrupting and taking away from the extraordinary landscape of La Jolla.
Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.
Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.

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