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It’s back to the drawing board for Hillel

It’s back to square one for Hillel in its plans to build a 12,000-square-foot Jewish student center on Site 653, a small triangular parcel across from UCSD that nearby homeowners want to preserve as an open space buffer between their single-family neighborhood and the university.

Superior Court Judge Linda B. Quinn ruled last week environmental planning for the project is deficient and a complete environmental impact report must be completed before it can proceed. Judge Quinn’s ruling reverses a previous Mitigation Negative Declaration finding by the city that there would be no environmental damage caused by the project that could not be compensated for, and that a formal environmental review was not required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQUA).

In rendering its decision, the court cited substantial evidence “that the Hillel project may have significant environmental impacts related to biology and traffic.”

“We’re disappointed and dismayed by the judge’s ruling,” said Bob Lapidus, past president of Hillel and chair of the organization’s facilities commitee.

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However, Lapidus cautioned Judge Quinn’s ruling shouldn’t be taken out of its proper context. He pointed out the judge did not find that project scale and traffic and parking issues, including noise, related to development of a student center onsite would be significant environmental considerations that needed to be addressed further. “The judge agreed all those issues were fully mitigated,” said Lapidus.

Lapidus said the two arguments the judge deemed were needy of further environmental review, the possibility of predatory birds roosting onsite and the impacts of pedestrians walking to the site during peak times, are dubious. “We think the judge clearly made an error on the biology issue with birds,” he said, “basing that ruling on an unobjective and biased opponent of the project.”

Lapidus added the view that there would be an overload of pedestrians walking to the site at peak times presenting a safety hazard crossing the street was a specious argument.

“This argument really shows the disingenousness of the opponents in their willingness to say anything and do anything to oppose the projetct,” he said. “The irony is that they’ve been saying that we were underparking, now they’re taking the position that there would be too many people walking to the facility.”

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Lapidus added Hillel is unbowed by opposition to its project. “While this may delay us,” he said, “in no way are we deterred from pursuing the project, and we are confident we will ultimately be able to provide a Hillel center on the site for students at UCSD.”

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

The suit against Hillel attempting to block their project was brought by an incorporated association, Taxpayers for Responsible Land Use, and the La Jolla Shores Association, a tax-exempt California 501(c) non-profit corporation. The association was formed by opponents to the Hillel project whose stated intent is to “protect and preserve La Jolla’s quality of life.”

Judge Quinn’s ruling also impacts Site 653’s previous sale by the city to Hillel. “The ruling specifically rescinds the sale,” said Todd Cardiff, an attorney representing the Taxpayers group. “It (site) needs to be reconveyed to the city. If they want to move forward on this project, they’ll need to go back and do CEQUA all over again and have to produce an environmental impact report.”

One component of the environmental impact report Hillel will now be required to do, said Cardiff, is to look at alternative locations other than Site 653, which could be developed by Hillel for its proposed Jewish student center serving UCSD. “There are (other) locations,” said Cardiff, “for example in La Jolla Corporate Center, that are available for Hillel to rent, buy or whatever they want to do.”

Councilman Peters was out of town and unavailable for comment. Pam Hardy, who handles Peters media relations, said the Councilman noted Hillel agreed to pay for any costs associated with any litigation related to their student center project. “We’re looking to them (Hillel) to see if they’re going to appeal,” said Hardy. “The ball is kind of in their court.”

Hardy added the City Council, in last May’s favorable vote for Hillel, relied on an environmental analysis performed by the city’s Development Services Department which determined the project could be passed through without further, more extensive environmental review. She added Peters, in his motion to support the sale of Site 653 to Hillel, wanted to ensure that any development on site include public amenities like public space and benches, to benefit the surrounding community.

Conditions attached by the City Council to Site 653’s development by Hillel last May 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.

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Hillel’s plans for Site 653 also 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, installing a water fountain and improving a public bus stop.

For seven years, neighbors of Site 653 have opposed its being developed, arguing land-use planning for the site has always intended that it 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 also set an unwanted and unwarranted precedent for other mixed-use development.

Judge Quinn’s ruling against Hillel would also appear to have rendered moot a second legal action brought by Taxpayers for Responsible Land Use and the La Jolla Shores Association against the student-center project, tentatively scheduled for a June 8 trial date, which challenges the $940,000 sale price the city charged Hillel for acquisition of Site 653. It is alleged that sale was “a waste of taxpayer’s money.”

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.