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Alleged miscalculations threaten to halt Hillel’s plans

Oral arguments were heard in Superior Court proceedings March 19 on a lawsuit attempting to block - or at least delay - Hillel’s plans to build a 12,000-square-foot Jewish student center on Site 653, a small triangular parcel near UCSD.

The suit, brought by Taxpayers For Responsible Land Use, an incorporated association, and La Jolla Shores Association, a non-profit corporation, against the city of San Diego, alleges the city did not do due dilligence in traffic, parking and environmental planning. The Hillel project was given a negative declaration, a determination there would be no adverse, unmitigable impacts associated with their controversial project. The suit also insists the way the city handled the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQUA), insisting a full environmental impact report should be required.

Also at issue, in a separate but related legal matter, is whether the city overstepped legal bounds in opting to sell, rather than lease, the Hillel site. That matter, to be heard later in trial, maintains the $940,000 price the city charged Hillel for Site 653 was well below fair-market value for the property.

In opening remarks, Hillel attorney Steve Strauss laid out Hillel’s defense of its student-center project. “This is a disturbed site surrounded by urban development,” said Strauss. “This has been an arduous, seven-year process. There are two impediments involving environmental review brought by a couple vociferous residents nearby who object to this project. Those who’ve objected have not been deemed credible by the city but erratic, arbitrary and biased.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Todd Cardiff later rebutted Hillel’s claims that it is only a minority of homeowners nearby who object to Hillel’s plans for Site 653. “This is not a couple of neighbors but thousands of people who oppose this project,” said Cardiff, “including all of La Jolla’s planning groups. An environmental impact report should be done to determine if this is the most appropriate site for a student center, rather than having the project jammed down the neighborhood’s throat.”

Plaintiff’s and defendant’s attorneys debated a number of issues during oral arguments, including biological findings for the project site. Parking, impacts to traffic and assurances by Hillel that it would provide additional, overflow off-site parking for students using the center on special occasions, and on heavily attended Friday night Shabbat services.

A major bone of contention was whether biological concerns regarding wildlife, specifically, raptor birds, were adequately addressing during environmental planning for the Hillel project. Plaintiffs claim the city illegally cut down four of five existing Eucalyptus trees on-site during recent unrelated road widening. They also contend city findings that Site 653 should be excluded as a potential site for raptor habitation is innacurate.

Defendant’s attorneys, on the other hand, argued Site 653 could only be considered as potential habitat for raptor birds if an existing nest could be found there. There is no evidence to support that claim, they said.

Defendants also characterized a claim by plaintiffs that a student center on Site 653 would imperil pedestrians because as many as 120 of them would be using crosswalks in a half-hour period prior to busy Friday evening Shabbat services as erroneous. Plaintiff’s attorneys countered that Hillel’s development plans for Site 653, situated at an already busy intersection, encourage pedestrian access and use, further complicating traffic safety in the area.

In May 2006, at the behest of Council President Scott Peters, the City Council voted 6-2 in favor of selling Site 653 to Hillel for development as a Jewish student center for $940,000. Peters, however, attached 25 conditions to sale of the site, which, he pointed out, are likely to add $500,000 or more to its development.

Those conditions included: capping capacity at 250, 400 for special events; limiting the number of special events during the first year of operation to six; requiring a minimum of 68 underground parking spaces and a shared parking agreement with UCSD for 67 spaces of overflow parking on campus; creation of a traffic demand management plan; and prohibition of overnight events or rental to outside groups.

For seven years neighbors of Site 653 have opposed its being developed on grounds that it should remain as an open-space buffer between the single-family neighborhood and the UCSD campus. They argue private, institutional development would increase traffic, noise, pollution, parking and safety hazards, directly impacting the residential community’s livability. Neighbors add construction of a new Jewish center on the site would set a precedent for other mixed-use development.

Hillel’s plans for Site 653 include creating a parklike setting with 24,000 square feet of landscaping on the 34,000-square-foot lot. Improvements are to consist of pedestrian and bicycle paths, planting a grove of Torrey pines, adding a park bench, a water fountain and improving a public bus stop.

City Council President Peters has referred to the Hillel site as an unattractive and underutilized piece of property. He believes its development as a Jewish student center would improve and benefit the surrounding neighborhood.

Superior Court Judge Linda B. Quinn’s tenative ruling on the CEQUA environmental challenges surrounding the Hillel lawsuit brought by Taxpayers For Responsible Land Use is pending. Judge Quinn also tentatively set a June 8 trial date for the lawsuit.