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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

A Smart Course for the University

CSUN should seek neighbors' input on planned shopping mall

March 09, 1997

Old ideas about paying for California's public universities are changing. With money from Sacramento in ever shorter supply, UC and Cal State campuses often turn to big donors and corporate partners to maintain services and keep student fees low. But in their quest to bolster budgets, university administrators must remember the public trust they hold and wisely choose their deals--however lucrative they may be.

Elsewhere on this page, Cal State Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson outlines the university's proposal to lease campus property to a private developer who wants to build a shopping center. The deal could yield as much as $1 million a year to the university--money that will be critical to the university as the children of baby boomers begin to overwhelm California schools. Despite modest increases over the last two years, the state's higher education budget has dropped in recent years. Like CSUN, other public universities are trying to make money by turning vacant campus property over to developers.

Given the fiscal realities facing public education, CSUN's partnership makes perfect sense. Unused, unprofitable land can generate income with few risks for the school. However, neighbors and some small merchants oppose the project. Their main complaints: traffic and competition from the big retail outlets that would occupy the center. For residents, living next to a busy shopping mall is considerably different than living next to a university. For shopkeepers, a chain store with volume discounts can drive out small competitors.

CSUN administrators must listen closely to the concerns of project opponents. The university enjoys considerable support from the community as the only four-year public campus in the San Fernando Valley. That goodwill is worth a lot. Although the project is subject to Los Angeles' land-use approval process, the university must take care not to act like any other applicant trying to get a project through. That may mean modifying the project to appease critics.

Taking a little extra time to find a project that neighbors can live with is critical. If the deal is a good one, it will be good a few months down the road. The worst course would be for CSUN to follow the lead of many other cash-strapped public agencies in California and fall under the spell of a project's effect on the bottom line. The bottom line here is that CSUN has a responsibility not only to the students it serves so well, but also to the community that supports it.

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