Round two of UCLA’s efforts to build a hotel and conference center on campus has begun, and public reaction to the proposal was largely negative at a meeting Monday night.
Last spring, the university scrapped plans to construct a hotel in place of the existing faculty center, due in part to outcry from professors and concerns raised by the Academic Senate.
Now administrators hope to build a scaled-down version of the project at Parking Structure 6, in between Spaulding Field and Ackerman turnaround.
The Monday meeting, which took place at the faculty center, was about the environmental impact of building at this new location. About 40 people attended, most of them Westwood homeowners.
Vice chancellor Steve Olsen opened the discussion with a brief review of the university’s stance. A hotel and conference center are needed for three reasons, he said ““ to create a place for faculty to meet and share ideas, to enhance UCLA’s global image, and to provide rooms for visiting scholars to stay in while attending events on campus.
Olsen also noted that no tuition dollars would be used to build or operate the $152 million facility, which would be financed through bonds and a $40 million donation.
Campus architect Jeff Averill gave a short presentation on the design of the facility and proposed redesign of Ackerman turnaround. Blueprints for the project are still very rough, he said.
The second half of the meeting was devoted to public comment, and many in attendance brought up a seeming lack of transparency on the administration’s behalf.
One homeowner noted that the public is being asked to assess the project before designs have been completed. Others criticized the university for not releasing a business plan that describes how the hotel will make money.
“Everybody is asking for (the business plan), and it doesn’t make sense that you’re hiding it,” homeowner Sandy Brown said.
There were also concerns about parking and traffic congestion in the turnaround. Parking Structure 6 would have to be demolished to make room for the hotel, and although a small parking lot would be built in its place, the hotel would have more rooms than parking spaces.
“What will happen when the lot is full and visitors are still pulling up?” asked homeowner Laura Lake.
Three representatives from local hotels, including the W on Hilgard Avenue, said they fear a large hotel on campus would hurt their business. UCLA can outcompete them by claiming tax-exempt status, enabling it to offer lower rates, they said.
The harshest criticism came from one of the last to speak, retired faculty member and local resident Nora Rosenberg.
“With all the overwhelming economic problems we face … It’s almost obscene to think you are building an unnecessary luxury hotel,” she said. “I think it’s infuriating.”
Speaking by phone the next day, Olsen said the public’s comments were nothing out of the ordinary when planning a new construction project.
The administration will take the input into account and figure out how to address it, he said. More meetings will be held, and there is plenty of time for refinements to be made.
“It would be wasteful of the university’s money and disrespectful of the community to fully design without getting any input,” he said.
Olsen also said there has been more transparency about the hotel’s financial feasibility than there would be for most construction projects, owing to an unusual amount of community interest.
To those who argued UCLA should focus on academics rather than hotel management, Olsen pointed out that the university operates three smaller hotels that have all been successful. These are the UCLA Guest House, the Tiverton House, and the Lake Arrowhead Conference Center.
“We’re already in this business,” Olsen said. “We’re experts at it.”
A full proposal for the hotel and conference center is likely to go before the UC Board of Regents in March, and Olsen said final approval is not expected until next September.
In addition to soliciting community response, the university will seek an advisory report from the Academic Senate before moving forward, said senate chair Andrew Leuchter.
Leuchter said he has not received a detailed business plan yet, but he is encouraged by what he has heard and believes the administration has done a good job responding to criticism.