Traffic & Transportation board OKs first step for planned downsized Hillel student center

By Dave Schwab

By a 4-3 vote on April 26, the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation (T&T) Board approved a requested street vacation that could pave the way for a downsized Hillel Jewish Student Center on the south side of La Jolla Village Drive between Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Scenic Way.

Comprised of representatives from La Jolla planning advisory groups and the merchant’s association, T&T makes recommendations to the city on transportation-related issues, including parking, street curbing, traffic signals and speed limits.

Members Todd Lesser, Keith Kelman, Earl Van Inwegen and John Kassar voted in favor of the street vacation, while Rob Hildt, Tom Brady and Michelle Fulks opposed it.

Named for a Jewish scholar, Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, serving Jewish students at more than 500 colleges and universities. The nonprofit group’s San Diego chapter, which currently rents space on the UC San Diego campus, owns and intends to redevelop a triangular-shaped, 0.76-acre lot known as Site 653 on the south side of La Jolla Village Drive.

Representing Hillel before T&T, Robert Lapidus defended the revamped student-center project, noting it’s half the size it was when it was originally proposed in 2000 at 12,000 square feet. He added the center has been broken up into three separate buildings within a courtyard, and five parking spaces would be lost in redeveloping the site.

Lapidis said the new Jewish center would benefit the community by turning an existing unimproved parcel into a park-like setting with pedestrian paths, a water fountain, and an upgraded bus stop, which would be open to all.

Land-use attorney Julie Hamilton, representing Taxpayers For Responsible Land Use, a non-profit neighborhood group opposed to Hillel’s project from the outset, argued the student center would be incompatible with the surrounding single-family neighborhood and lead to diminished parking, more traffic and less public safety.

Lengthy debate over the proposed street vacation at the meeting turned on varying interpretations of the city’s municipal code, and whether redeveloping a portion of the site as a park would offset loss of some parking.

Responding to the city municipal code condition that “there must be no present or prospective use for the easement or right-of-way” in a street vacation, group chair Lesser said, “There’s no present or prospective use for that street, which was supposed to go clear through.”

Board member Tom Brady said, “The street is being used for parking, to me it’s crystal clear you can’t make the findings for the street vacation.”

Board member Kelman countered, “Walking through a beautiful area is not a benefit? The public will benefit from the improved use of the land.”

Editor’s note: The controversy over the Hillel project prompted the resignation last week of architect Michael Morton from the La Jolla Shores Permit Review Committee. Read Morton’s letter on page A26.

What’s next for Hillel project?

The applicants must present their plans to the La Jolla Community Planning Association, the advisory group making land-use recommendations to the city. This meeting was postponed from May until June.