|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 12, 2012--SAN FRANCISCO -- UCLA's much-debated plan for a conference center and 250-room hotel in the heart of the campus overcame previous skepticism among some UC regents and won unanimous approval Tuesday from an important university panel.
The vote by the regents' grounds and buildings committee is expected to be easily confirmed Thursday by the full regents board. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said he was gratified by the support for the Luskin Conference and Guest Center, named after alumni Meyer and Renee Luskin, who gave $50 million for the seven-story facility.
"I'm happy because we are moving ahead. We want to get this built," Block said at the meeting here. He said he hoped construction would start next summer with completion in 2016.
A potential hurdle, however, remains: Nearby hoteliers and Westwood activists contend the UCLA center will pose unfair competition since it will not charge occupancy taxes. They also say the project will clog the area with extra traffic.
Sandy Brown, a co-founder of the Friends of Westwood civic group, said she and other area residents and business people don't think UCLA should be exempt from charging the taxes. They contend the campus hotel will be a commercial enterprise posing as an academic one.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Brown said she feared some hotels might go out of business as a result of the UCLA hotel and believes the center "definitely will hurt the neighborhood." Opponents are studying whether to challenge the UCLA project with a lawsuit, she said.
UC officials said the university was exempt from charging the taxes since the hotel will be open only to university-related visitors, such as scientists attending a seminar and families on college tours. They say that there will be plenty of remaining demand for Westside hotel rooms and that UCLA will not advertise or offer empty rooms on commercial websites. UCLA added that city approval is not necessary for the project.
The project has had a difficult history. Originally, the center was going to replace a beloved faculty center on the campus' eastern edge but that provoked protest from professors. It was then moved to the location of a current parking garage at the campus center, just south of the Bruin statue. Then earlier this year, some regents questioned the entire idea and pressed UCLA to investigate buying an existing hotel instead. UCLA prevailed after showing that local hotels could not accommodate the conferences it hopes to host.
Revenues from room rentals and dining are supposed to support payments on the $112 million in bond financing. Of the Luskin gift, $40 million is for construction and $10 million for a programming endowment. Other campus funds will be used too.
In other business Tuesday, UC officials said they have started their campaign to improve lab safety throughout the 10-campus system in response to a court settlement stemming from a 2008 lab accident that killed a UCLA research assistant. In that agreement, prosecutors dropped felony charges against the regents. UC administrators said they were fulfilling their requirements by inspecting labs and creating presentations to all lab workers about protective gear and other measures. Charges remain against the UCLA lab supervisor, chemistry professor Patrick Harran.
(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times
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