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UC regents delay decision on UCSD development project and raise financial concerns

A UC regents committee decided to continue consideration of UC San Diego's Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood.
A UC Board of Regents committee decided to continue consideration of UC San Diego’s Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood at a future meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After a lengthy discussion that began the day before, University of California regents said Sept. 17 that they were delaying a decision on approving the UC San Diego Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood until UCSD brings clearer financial projections to a future regents meeting.

The La Jolla Shores Association and La Jolla Community Planning Association voted this month to urge the Board of Regents to postpone a decision on the project. Both groups have voiced concerns about its scope, environmental impacts and a perceived lack of communication from UCSD.

The La Jolla Shores Association voted to urge the University of California Board of Regents to postpone a decision on UC San Diego’s planned Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood, following a La Jolla Community Planning Association decision to make a similar request.

TDLLN, a $645 million UCSD expansion proposed as part of the university’s 2018 Long Range Development Plan, is planned for La Jolla Village Drive at North Torrey Pines Road. It calls for five buildings ranging from nine to 21 stories tall and is designed to house 2,000 students. It also includes a conference center, hotel rooms, classrooms, retail and a 1,200-space parking garage underneath.

The regents heard several comments about the project during the board’s online open session the morning of Sept. 16, with a formal presentation by UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla during the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee meeting that afternoon.

“College experience is not just about content acquisition … it’s about social growth,” Khosla said. “We think this project, adding 2,000 beds, will make up for the 2,000 beds lost because of decompression from triple [rooms] to doubles. We are convinced this is the right way to go, for a whole class of undergraduate population.”

“I understand there’s a small minority, less than a handful, of our neighbors who are not supporting this,” Khosla added. “I can tell you there’s very strong support for this. Our students want this housing.”

Griffin Dempsey, an undergraduate, said during public comments that TDLLN would create “a more contiguous campus community and provide housing students badly need.”

Dempsey urged the regents to approve the project, “despite some of the concerns of the community, who seem to be overly concerned with growth happening in their back yard, even though the [university] is not necessarily in La Jolla Shores, which I would perhaps describe as an overserved community.”

La Jolla Shores Association President Janie Emerson said “we are for dorms and support of students. I don’t think most of you … would want a mega shopping center like this put right on top of you. At no time has this entire project been disclosed to the community; at no time has the community been allowed to give complete input. We ask that you delay or deny this project and avoid another community lawsuit.”

During the finance committee meeting, Regent Richard Leib said “my concern is the litigation problems. I know where the project’s being built — there are neighbors out there that wouldn’t want a portable toilet being built; they wouldn’t want anything.”

“The last thing we want is to start getting involved in real big delays,” he said.

UC attorney Kelly Drumm said “the only basis for litigation would be to challenge the [California Environmental Quality Act] documentation, and I understand the campus has conducted the appropriate CEQA. We can’t preclude people from filing a CEQA action, but if they were to file, we would evaluate it at that time.”

UCSD's Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood would be at La Jolla Village Drive and North Torrey Pines Road.
UC San Diego’s Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood would be built at La Jolla Village Drive and North Torrey Pines Road.
(UC San Diego)

Regent Cecilia Estolano asked for further explanation of the project’s potential environmental impact.

Campus architect Joel King spoke about landscaped outdoor areas such as “the ramble, a large public round that functions as a low-impact development device for storm water capture that also creates significant opportunity for planting. There is a strategy here.”

Estolano, along with Regents Lark Park and committee Chairman Hadi Makarechian, voiced concerns about the financial aspects of the project.

“It is to me a question of if this is the right time to move forward with this large of a project,” Park said.

“Our financials … are pretty strong,” Khosla said.

“I’ve been pushing for this project,” Makarechian said. “I’m all for it, except for this budget at this point in time is too expensive, and perhaps we need to understand the campus’s finances.”

Nearly all of the $645 million budget is to be funded from external (debt) financing, with $1 million coming from campus funds.

Makarechian asked the committee to consider a continuance until the regents’ November meeting, at which time Khosla could present more precise numbers, without “cushions and contingencies.”

Khosla contended that “if we delay by two months, the delivery is delayed by a year. That creates havoc.”

Pierre Ouillet, UCSD vice chancellor and chief financial officer, said “we already [compromised] the timelines a lot.”

The committee agreed to continue the meeting to the following day, Sept. 17, asking Khosla to come back with a number that UCSD would need to keep the project afloat for two months, should its possible approval be postponed until November.

Ouillet agreed, saying, “What we can tell you ... is what we need just to make sure we don’t fire everyone.”

Makarechian said: “You could have provided all this information before. But then you come in and say if you don’t do it, it’s going to be delayed. … It sort of pushes us into a position of saying yes or no under not having enough information. I don’t think that’s the right thing for us to do.”

During the regents’ online meeting Sept. 17, the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee voted to approve $5 million for continuing the TDLLN design process “until a later time.”

“The [UCSD] campus will bring back the item to us with all of the revised numbers that they will receive, subsequent to the preliminary design issues,” Makarechian said. ◆