UCSD’s La Jolla Innovation Center project draws aesthetic and traffic concerns at environmental hearing

A rendering of the UCSD Innovation Center, proposed for the intersection of La Jolla Village Drive and Villa La Jolla.
A rendering depicts the La Jolla Innovation Center proposed for the intersection of La Jolla Village Drive and Villa La Jolla Drive. Public comments are being accepted through Monday, March 22.

Planners of UC San Diego’s proposed La Jolla Innovation Center presented the project’s draft environmental impact report during an online public hearing Feb. 25, with several comments expressing concern about potential effects on neighborhood aesthetics and traffic congestion.

The Innovation Center is a proposed seven-story building at the intersection of Villa La Jolla Drive and La Jolla Village Drive that would include five levels of UCSD Health Sciences and Extension uses, two levels of above-grade parking and two levels of subterranean parking.

The project also would include a ground-level cafe open to the public at the southeast corner of the building.

Hot on the heels of UC San Diego’s Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood breaking ground this month, the La Jolla university is already looking at another development project.

Jan. 9, 2021

Two driveways would provide vehicle access to the Innovation Center, one from Villa La Jolla and another from the Villa Norte cul-de-sac.

Construction would begin in mid-2021, with completion in 2023.

The University of California is the lead agency for the project.

Joanne Dramko, project manager with Helix Environmental Planning, which is helping UCSD prepare the EIR, said the project is “in an optimal location for UCSD Extension and health programs adjacent to the campus, accessible to the greater region through trolley, bus stations and the I-5.”

“Easy pedestrian access from the campus to the project site is provided by an existing pedestrian bridge” north of the site, she said.

UCSD Health already occupies part of the commercial center currently on the site, but “the leased space does not comply with the UC seismic safety policy,” Dramko said. Those offices will need to move to a new location.

UCSD community liaison Anu Delouri said in early January that the university was looking to acquire and redevelop one acre of the seven-acre site.

University associate communications director Leslie Sepuka said Feb. 26 that UCSD had still not acquired the land.

A red star indicates the planned site of the La Jolla Innovation Center on the periphery of the UC San Diego campus.

The EIR process for the Innovation Center began in the fall, when a virtual scoping hearing was held, Dramko said. Public comment from that hearing was incorporated into the draft EIR, on which the Feb. 25 hearing was based.

During the scoping process, some comments addressed “aesthetics and visual character,” Dramko said.

In response, she said, the proposed height of the building is 100 feet above ground level. “The topography generally slopes up to a high point at the Torrey Pines ridge to the east,” she said, “and the building heights vary considerably. The proposed building would not be out of character.”

The project also would comply with the UCSD outdoor lighting policy, she said, which requires the use of “focused and shielded outdoor lighting, discourages upward lighting and prohibits lighting for landscaping or decorative purposes after 10 p.m.”

Another topic was transportation impact, Dramko said. “CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] has revised the way it addresses transportation to focus on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT,” she said.

A traffic study generated “a specific average trip length for the project as well as an average daily volume, which ultimately calculates the total VMT per employee,” Dramko said.

The project needs to have VMT at least 15 percent lower than the regional average, Dramko said. The traffic study showed a project VMT 26 percent below the regional average, she said.

“In addition, the project would have no effect on ingress/egress to the site” provided by the adjacent streets, she said.

During public comments, seven people offered questions and opinions about the EIR.

Charles Kaminsky said the height limit presented “is misleading, as it does not reconcile with the coastal zone height limit,” which is currently 30 feet. “A baseline comparison does not indicate the actual building height or its conformity in the coastal zone. Please indicate on your exhibits the actual height limit and how it compares to the coastal zone height limit of 30 feet.”

When asked in January how the project would fit in the coastal zone, Delouri said, “Once under the university’s property … it will be subject to UC land management policies, including those relating to building heights, setbacks and design.”

Another commenter expressed concerns about congestion at the intersection of Villa La Jolla Drive and Villa Norte and construction noise and dust mitigation.

Isabelle Kay asked: “If we’re trying to reduce automobile traffic, why are four levels of parking needed? Regarding the aesthetics of the building itself, it’s very ominous and monolithic. Can the design be stepped back?”

Leslie Zeigenhorn said the design “struck me as really incongruous with the surrounding buildings, and also the height seems problematic.”

Jim Smith asked whether “other sites not on the perimeter of the campus ... were considered as options to minimize the congestion.”

Tom Horvath said he has worked in the building behind the site for 30 years. “I just want to reinforce the point about traffic. If someone is turning from La Jolla Village Drive and heading south on Villa La Jolla Drive and then making a right-hand turn into the site, it can back up traffic all the way. … There’s probably some mitigation that could be done around that.”

Randy Alexander said: “I’m very upset about this project. I was an original tenant of this building in 1980 and it’s gotten more and more congested. ... There’s no way you’re going to be able to reduce the impact to a point that’s acceptable to me and the other tenants in that area. I’m in the office closest to that project, and I just can’t see this being anything that’s mitigatable enough.”

Dramko did not respond to any of the comments. The next step, she said, is to take all oral and written comments and respond to them in writing in the preparation of the final EIR, which should be ready in April.

Public comment on the draft EIR is being accepted through 5 p.m. Monday, March 22. To participate, email or mail comments to La Jolla Innovation Center Project, Helix Environmental Planning, Attn.: Joanne Dramko, 7578 El Cajon Blvd., La Mesa, CA 91942.

In May, the UC regents will consider the project and design and certification of the final EIR, Dramko said, “which will be the third and final opportunity for the public to provide comments.”

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— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.