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Submission: Proposed UCLA conference center too costly, ignores tax code and zoning

The University of California is a public trust, a public treasure, an institution of world renown, not because it operates campus hotels, but because of its faculty and student body.

Broken down by square footage, the 250-room, $162 million Luskin Conference and Guest Center is 91.5 percent hotel and a mere 8.5 percent conference meeting space.

At $648,000 per hotel room, it is a Taj Mahal for a campus cut to the bone. When it opens, it will charge $224 a night.

That is why in March the UC Board of Regents asked for alternatives that would be less costly and less risky. But a July 3 letter from Meyer and Renee Luskin to the Regents derailed all alternatives by insisting on Lot 6.

Save Westwood Village v. Regents of the University of California and Meyer and Renee Luskin, real parties in interest, is about inadequate fire protection in Westwood; UCLA’s failure to impartially analyze less costly alternatives to this project; violation of city zoning; and UCLA’s refusal to pay local and federal tax on its many hotels.

UCLA has not paid local and federal tax for existing hotels including Tiverton House and the Faculty Guest House and its summer conference hotels, and insists that the Luskin hotel is also exempt from the 15.5 percent city transient occupancy tax and tourism tax. Other UC hotels collect this tax. Hotel tax pays for vital city services, according to Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Koretz. In a letter to the Regents dated July 10, 2012, Koretz stated that the tax is needed to fund emergency services such as fire and police services.

The Luskin Hotel Environmental Impact Report stated that there is adequate fire protection service on and off campus. That is not true. As far back as 2008, the Los Angeles Fire Department has stated “the existing staffing levels, equipment inventories, and fire station facility space are not adequate to meet the project area’s current demand for fire service. Fire Station 37 (Veteran and Wilshire) is too old and small.” Even with this evidence, the Regents approved a finding that there is adequate fire protection service.

The Luskin hotel would add demand to a system that is already overburdened from staff cutbacks, dispatch problems, old equipment and facilities. Evidence documenting these problems was submitted to UCLA, including a 160-page Excel spreadsheet documenting each of the 1,100 L.A. Fire Department visits to campus last year that cost the City of Los Angeles more than $1.7 million.

Faced with the Luskins’ letter, the Board of Regents ignored this evidence and signed off on an Environmental Impact Report that claimed fire protection service is adequate. That was a cynical betrayal of the public trust and one reason why there is a lawsuit.

UCLA claimed in a Daily Bruin article that the Luskin Lot 6 Hotel will not take business away from Westwood because its guests would be affiliated with the campus. Those UCLA “affiliated” guests now stay in Westwood. Of course UCLA is taking business away from Westwood. Even UCLA’s own consultant, PKF Consulting, reported that 40 percent of the Luskin Conference Center’s business would be from groups presently using local hotels.

UCLA’s campus is zoned Public Facilities in the Westwood Community Plan. A hotel is not permitted in this zone. In 1999, UCLA received a zone variance from the City of Los Angeles for cell phone towers on campus. The approval states that the campus is subject to city zoning.

Hotel industry experts testified before the Regents that the project will not turn a profit for its first 19 years. To make its revenue look better, UCLA added income from other campus hotels and refused to provide $23 million in compensation to Parking Services for the loss of 754 valuable parking spaces, paid for by permit holders. The Environmental Impact Report claims there is a parking surplus on campus. But in a recent Bidders’ Ad for the Luskin Hotel, UCLA stated: “NOTE: Bidders are advised that parking may be difficult. Bidders should allow ample time to drive to the above location in heavy traffic, find a parking space, walk to the building.”

This warning came for a January 4, 2013 meeting, when classes were not in session and Lot 6 with 754 spaces was (and still is) available. There is no parking surplus.

This hotel is a costly status symbol which will divert campus resources that are needed by faculty and students. Count on increased parking permits and student housing fees to cover debt when revenue is inadequate. There are viable alternatives that are risk- and debt-free.

Lake is co-president of Save Westwood Village.

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  • Joward Harvis

    When Laura Lake agrees to pay pre-Proposition 13 property tax rates on the market value of her Westwood home, then she can complain about taxes and zoning. There’s a $1,000,000 gap between her home’s assessed value and Zillow’s estimate. California passed Proposition 13 to provide a benefit homeowners like the Lakes. She and her husband further benefited when they transferred their home to a trust in 2006 without triggering a re-assessment. This is policy is good for the Lakes and good for the public.

    The University of California system also provides a public benefit to California. One could argue that it provides much more of a benefit than subsidized home ownership. Long ago, California decided to make its university system an autonomous state institution. As such, the system has certain privileges not afforded other organizations, like a tax-exempt status. Unlike Laura’s home, the University of California is on state property, owned by the Regents. As municipal laws do not apply to state property, UCLA is not bound by the municipal zoning code, the hotel tax, the gross receipts tax, or other municipal laws. However, the University elects to cooperate with neighbors, giving certain individuals and groups an inflated sense of their ability to affect on-campus matters.

    I urge Laura and her neighbors to instead voluntarily contribute their Proposition 13 savings to a fund that allows UCLA to afford to hold academic conferences at area hotels. That would obviate some need for the conference center.

  • Reason3

    Aside from the fact that this submission is rife with errors (the room rate and lack of context for university tax exemptions, for starters), why do we care what Laura and the “Save Westwood Village” goons think? If they had it their way, UCLA, the 405, Westwood Village, and anything blocking the view from their homes in the hills would be plowed down. No apartments, buses, students, or poor people allowed, either.

    I think a home in Orange County would suit the Lakes quite nicely.

  • William

    It annoys me when Westwood residents who have no affiliation with UCLA try to stop projects because ‘they will cost the university too much.’ It is the university’s business to decide what to spend and not spend money on. I, a UCLA student who pays tuition, am highly supportive of this project.