Guest commentary: UCSD’s unbridled expansion is harming our coast and community

A rendering depicts UC San Diego’s Pepper Canyon West Living and Learning Neighborhood, which will house 1,310 students.
A rendering depicts UC San Diego’s Pepper Canyon West Living and Learning Neighborhood, which will house 1,310 students. La Jolla Shores resident Cameron Volker writes that UCSD’s ongoing expansion “has irreparably damaged our coastline and caused congestion in La Jolla to be at a breaking point.”

The front page article in the La Jolla Light dated Sept. 15 announced that the [California] Coastal Commission approved repairs to a section of the slope along La Jolla Shores Drive (“Coastal Commission approves plans to repair slope next to UCSD”). The erosion likely threatened the stability of the land supporting La Jolla Shores Drive, just above the bend in Scripps Grade where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Southwest Fisheries Science Center is situated. The article stated that a caveat of the approval was the protection of birds that nest along the coastline.

The article stated that according to a staff report associated with the repair project, the slope failure was caused by a water line break in 2018 southwest of La Jolla Shores Drive next to UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But this same area experienced a remarkable transformation a little over a decade ago. The entire mountainside was carved out and removed by thousands of hours of double-trailer dump trucks that lined up along La Jolla Shores Drive day after day, month after month, removing the mountain so the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center could be built into the mountainside.

The removal of the coastal mountain, and the resulting steep grades behind the fisheries center, were permitted by the Coastal Commission. Now, what remains of the mountain is an unstable, exceedingly steep slope behind the fisheries center that has failed because it did not meet the Coastal Commission grade restrictions that should have been adhered to in the coastal zone. But now the venerable Coastal Commission is rescuing the coastal fauna with a farcical caveat protecting birds that may have previously nested in the now-eroded section of the slope that remains.

Now to the most pressing issues. Page A21 of the same September La Jolla Light contained an article about UCSD
breaking ground on yet another huge expansion to its campus (“UC San Diego breaks ground on tallest campus housing complex in its history”).

This expansion is in addition to the towers that are currently under construction, built under a UCSD exemption to the 30-foot coastal height limit. California created coastal building height limitations in order to protect the integrity and the natural beauty of our precious coastlines and communities. But the article announced this “is one of three massive residential centers that will add more than 5,000 beds to the La Jolla university’s housing capacity.” The project will also have retail shops and cafes.

The article continues: “UCSD is in the process of building or planning six buildings that will range from 16 to 23 stories. The expansion is creating a skyline for the campus, which was once largely hidden behind eucalyptus trees.”

The UC San Diego campus in La Jolla is in a major state of change, with $6 billion in projects underway, planned or proposed.

March 15, 2022

The article, however, did not discuss the continuing detrimental impact to our coastline and to our coastal community that UCSD’s massive developments have created. In 1976, when UCSD was granted, by ballot proposition, an exemption to the coastal 30-foot height limit, no one anticipated the unbridled expansion that has irreparably damaged our coastline and caused congestion in La Jolla to be at a breaking point.

No one envisioned the financial nexus between politicians and the labor unions whose dues support the politicians. These politicians, in turn, appoint the regents of the University of California. This is a nexus so powerful and so well-funded that local communities and residents have no power to reason with the unelected and out-of-area bureaucrats who make the decisions to continue to build at UCSD in spite of our community’s weighty objections concerning congestion and protection of our coastal resources.

The current construction has marred the beauty of one of the most beautiful and iconic coastlines in the world. The university pretends to care about the environment, yet it is not a good steward of the coastal lands it is entrusted with. It is misusing the privilege it was given. UCSD has also built and is building what it calls “public-private” buildings, such as the building currently under construction at La Jolla Village Drive and Villa La Jolla Drive, where traffic is at critical mass.

Important issues concerning serious traffic congestion and the protection of our coastline are ignored and arrogantly dismissed by UCSD as unimportant compared with the lofty goals of the university system. But what are some of the university’s lofty goals? Is protecting our environment and our coastlines one of them?

The residents of La Jolla raise their families, live, work and recreate along our precious coastline. Our children go to colleges and universities, and parents know the benefits of a university, but UCSD is not the only university in our nation. Our residents have a balanced and broad perspective that the university bureaucracy does not possess or recognize. In La Jolla, residents balance their needs as well as the university’s needs, the needs of tourists and visitors from all over the county, the state and the world.

Our coastal roads are at capacity. We cannot expand west into the ocean, and we are bound by the freeways that exit into La Jolla. La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla Parkway and Highway 52 feed directly into La Jolla. “The Throat” at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla Parkway, La Jolla Shores Drive and Hidden Valley Road is one of the busiest intersections in our county.

Our streets are at gridlock and UCSD is still expanding. Our La Jolla Shores residents often cannot even get home from the grocery store, or if they do, they cannot unload their groceries due to parked cars in front of their homes. La Jolla Shores Drive is routinely backed up when UCSD employees leave the campus and turn left at The Throat toward I-5 or the 52 east.

The new trolley Blue Line connecting UCSD to the UTC shopping mall, Morena Boulevard and Old Town is not solving the traffic problem that UCSD has caused in La Jolla.

The bureaucratic push to make UCSD one of the largest in the country is irresponsible and abusive. Bigger does not usually equate with better education.

UCSD now has the third-largest student housing capacity, behind Penn State and UCLA, and it is scheduled to continue to expand. An entire new high-rise “city” is under construction, with more to come. High-rises demand enormous energy resources. Water, sewer, maintenance and delivery services will further stretch our city’s infrastructure resources and pollute our air and oceans. The university is building towers on our coastal lands to house more students than our coastal community, our infrastructure and our oceans can absorb.

UCSD has over the years squandered the trust we had in their ability to at least adhere to its generous coastal restriction guidelines. They continue to betray all who are concerned about protecting our precious coastal resources.

La Jolla and all residents of San Diego and the world who value our coastal beauty, the oceans and the recreational resources La Jolla offers need to organize and stand up to UCSD and demand an immediate end to their expansion.

Cameron Volker is a resident of La Jolla Shores.