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City Council comes to town for showdown on Jewish center

After six years, substantial debate and considerable expense, the fate of Hillel’s proposal to build a Jewish student center on a small parcel of land next to UCSD will likely be decided at a special City Council meeting Tuesday, May 9, in La Jolla.

City staff has recommended approving the Hillel project, which is known by neighbors as Site 653. There was also speculation the city-owned project site might be sold outright, rather than being leased longterm to Hillel.

Hillel was granted exclusive rights to negotiation for Site 653 in 2000. The organization envisions constructing a 12,000-square-foot educational and religious facility on the 15,350-square-foot triangular lot between La Jolla Scenic Drive and La Jolla Village Drive. Plans include creating a 4,000-square-foot multi-purpose room, a library, worship space, a lounge, a computer lab and administrative and student office space. A total of 40 parking spaces would be provided on-site in an underground garage.

Since its onset, the Hillel project has drawn strident criticism from a grassroots group, La Jolla Highland Homeowners Association, which wants Site 653 left as open space or turned into a public park. The homeowners group argues the project is inappropriate for the designated site, which should be left in perpetuity as a buffer separating the single-family neighborhood and the university.

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Hillel spokesman Bob Lapidus said that in an engineering sense, little has changed over time about the sudent center project. What is different, he said, is that details have been worked out regarding off-site parking, which would be used during Friday worship hours, religious holidays and other celebrations held infrequently during the year.

“We do have an agreement with UCSD modeled after other parking licenses with other users for overflow parking on evenings or weekends, including our peak weekly use on Friday nights,” said Lapidus. “We want an assurance to neighbors that we’re not going to be parking in their neighborhood.”

Lapidus said it makes sense to utilize the university for overflow parking in the infrequent times it’s needed, since the new Jewish center primarily serves UCSD students. He said shuttle service will be provided to and from campus, with parking attendants at both locations during overflow situations.

Insufficient parking and traffic congestion were major issues raised by the city Planning Commission, which voted 4-0 in March 2005 to deny the project as proposed. Hillel’s project also got a thumbs down vote from community planners on three local advisory groups, La Jolla Town Council, La Jolla Shores Association and La Jolla Community Planning Association.

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Sherri Lightner, chair of La Jolla Shores Association, argued Hillel’s proposal is the wrong project in the wrong place.

“This is an inappropriate project because a UCSD affiliate is encroaching into the neighborhood,” she said. “This site had been designated open space for over 30 years. If (City Council members) make their decision based on land-use issues, then they do not have a choice. The community will prevail.”

Robert Korch, a city staffer who’s been working on the Site 653 proposal, said the City Council has wide latitude in judging the project.

“They can ask questions,” he said, “search for more information, get things clarified and add conditions to the draft permit as they see relevant. If they intend to support the project, it’s up to the council to take their vote.”

Concerning whether Site 653 should be kept as open space, Korch said the parcel was designated in the La Jolla Community Plan as open space, which is a land-use policy document. “The City Council made a decision that this is developable land. Saying it’s open space is an old argument.”

Penelope Bourk, a neighbor of Site 653, is in the process of moving out of the neighborhood. She said it’s difficult to express how stressful the fight has been for residents to battle university encroachment into their single-family neighborhood.

“The neighborhood has been running fire drills,” she said, “caused by things that shouldn’t be allowed by our community plan and our planned district ordinance. The strain on this neighborhood has been phenomenal. We still need to fight to preserve our residential neighborhood and to keep Site 653 as a buffer against institutional development.”

Bourk hopes the City Council denies Hillel’s proposed project.

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“It is too large on too small a property in the wrong place,” she said. “It is about institutional predation destabilizing this neighborhood.”

Bourk contends that Hillel is a recruiting organization.

“Student recruiting should not be happening in a residential neighborhood,” she said.

How the City Council vote is likely to go May 9 is a tough call, both sides agree.

“It would be presumptious for me to project how it’s going to come out,” said Hillel’s Lapidus. “We’ve got a very worthwhile project. It’s going to be a great Hillel student center and will be a wonderful asset to the community. We’re just looking for the opportunity to prove it.”

Once the student facility is up and running, Lapidus is confident the community will agree the non-profit Jewish group is a good neighbor.

Should Hillel’s student center project be denied by the City Council, Lapidus admitted it might be difficult to regroup.

“At that point,” he said, “We’d have to evaluate where to go. I don’t know that we’d have any other options.”

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Community planner Lightner predicted the matter could end up in court.

“Some of the people I’ve heard from are pretty excited about the possibility,” she said. “We are trying to make the record as complete as possible, if it goes to litigation.”

Lightner said it makes more sense financially for the city to lease rather than sell the Site 653 property.

“The city of San Diego would be getting a raw deal on the land if it’s sold,” she said. “We’ve had some people figure a property tax valuation of around $7 million for an 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home on that site, with an ongoing revenue stream. That’s compared to an estimated $940,000 with initial purchase of the land, and that’s it.”

The City Council meeting will be held Tuesday, May 9, at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, 700 Prospect St.