Regents approved UCSD development’s design and EIR, UC says, though vote at meeting is unclear

The UC Board of Regents' Finance and Capital Strategies Committee considered the UC San Diego TDLLN project Sept. 16-17.
The UC Board of Regents’ Finance and Capital Strategies Committee considered the UC San Diego Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood project Sept. 16-17.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The UC Board of Regents’ record of its Sept. 17 Finance and Capital Strategies Committee meeting states the group voted to give design and environmental approval to UC San Diego’s planned $645 million Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood, though it delayed approval of the project’s budget pending financial clarifications.

Documents recording the design and environmental approval surprised La Jolla community leaders and others who watched the committee’s online hearing Sept. 16-17 and reviewed recordings of it later, because it is unclear when the approval vote was made or what the wording was.

During the Sept. 17 session, which was continued from the previous day, 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,” said committee Chairman Hadi Makarechian.

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.

During the meeting, Makarechian and other regents raised financial concerns about the proposal.

“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.

The project, planned for La Jolla Village Drive at North Torrey Pines Road, 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.

A rendering depicts UC San Diego's planned Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood.

Janie Emerson, president of the La Jolla Shores Association, which has long opposed the project’s scope, potential environmental impact and perceived lack of community input, said the association’s attorneys, retained earlier this year to aid the group’s opposition, received a document called a notice of determination last week from Alyssa Helper, a UCSD planning team representative.

The notice, stamped as recorded at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research on Sept. 18, states that the University of California approved the project Sept. 17 and determined, among other things, that:

• The project would have no impact, or a less than significant impact, on the environment.

• Relevant mitigation measures from the environmental impact report (EIR) for UCSD’s 2018 Long Range Development Plan, or LRDP, were made a condition of approval of the project and no new project-specific mitigation measures are required.

• The findings were made pursuant to provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

But Emerson, who attended both days of the regents’ meeting virtually, said: “On [Sept. 17], the Financial and Capital Strategies Committee voted $5 million to the university for expenses for the project until they came back for approval. I find nothing in the video of the regents’ meeting that show any other votes on this project at all.

“The only two votes on this project by this committee were relative to the dollar amount needed by the university to tide them over for their expenses until the project came back for review and approval.”

Josh Chatten-Brown, an attorney with Chatten-Brown, Carstens & Minteer, the firm retained by LJSA in the matter, reviewed the video recording of the committee votes and said he is “very concerned about several different things.”

“The regents’ filing of a notice that says the [TDLLN] project was approved, when the regents only approved the $5 million to continue with the design process, is really problematic,” he said.

“They specifically indicated that UCSD could bring the project back for consideration at [the regents’] November meeting or at any other time. Based on all the publicly available information, there was no approval of the project or any approval of the environmental review for the project.”

The La Jolla Light, which watched the Sept. 16-17 sessions live and again on video, reviewed an online summary of action items from the meeting stating that the committee recommended that the president of the University of California “approve the design of the TDLLN project, San Diego campus.”

The recorded action items also include the committee adopting the “CEQA findings for the TDLLN, having considered the 2018 LRDP EIR for the La Jolla campus, as well as Addendum No. 5 to the 2018 LRDP EIR for the Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood.”

That language matched an item on the agenda for Sept. 16, though the Light also could find no point in either session where the design and environmental approval specifically was made.

Asked to confirm the approval, UCSD associate communications director Leslie Sepuka told the Light via email that “the committee hearings were held on Sept. 16 and 17 and full board decisions were made on Sept. 17. The recommendation received unanimous approval from the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee and the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents has asked the university to prepare additional documentation before they approve the project budget.”

The Light also reached out to UC secretary and chief of staff Anne Shaw, as well as communications personnel for the regents, to determine when the vote for design and environmental approval was taken.

Senior communications strategist Stett Hollbrook responded with a video link to the Sept. 16 committee discussion of the project. Shaw sent a link to the summary of action items from the committee meeting and links to both the Sept. 16 committee meeting and the Sept. 17 open regents board meeting.

However, the recordings of those sessions do not reflect the wording in the actions summary or indicate approval of TDLLN’s EIR or design.

Shaw responded that “each element of an action item is not always discussed or announced prior to the item vote.”

Chatten-Brown said he’s also troubled that the regents appear to have disregarded the “very detailed” letter his firm sent to the board ahead of the meeting. “None of the issues we submitted were discussed by any of the regents,” he said.

The letter, Chatten-Brown said, stated that “for a project of this scope and size, relying upon an addendum is completely inappropriate and violates [CEQA].”

An addendum also does not allow for public participation, he said. “There’s no requirement for the regents to respond to the issues we raised … and the regents’ public comment process is totally deficient.”

Chatten-Brown said he and LJSA “will be evaluating all options on how to address the wholly inappropriate actions of the regents,” noting that under CEQA, there is a 30-day window to file a lawsuit. That period began Sept. 18, when the notice of determination was filed.

“The clock is ticking,” he said.

“I just want honest answers to honest questions that the public and this community deserve to know,” Emerson said. “All we have ever asked for is honest and respectful interactions from UCSD for the benefit of all of us.” ◆