SAN FRANCISCO — UCLA's controversial plan to build a conference center and 250-room hotel on campus won crucial approval Tuesday from a University of California regents' panel.
The $162-million project, to be built on the site of a garage south of the Bruin statue, was unanimously endorsed by the regents' buildings committee despite opposition from some Westwood-area residents and hoteliers. The full Board of Regents is expected to support the proposal Wednesday, a turnaround from March, when the plan was temporarily withdrawn after officials raised concerns about finances and the effect on private Westside hotels.
Since then, UCLA officials said, they have looked at other options, including buying an existing off-campus hotel, but found that none had sufficient meeting rooms.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, clearly delighted with the vote Tuesday, said the center would allow visitors to more fully and conveniently experience campus life, whether they are on campus for a scientific meeting, a tour for potential freshmen or a trip to the medical center for health tests. He said the center "is vital to UCLA, has a solid business plan and is the best alternative to meet UCLA's goals."
The regents said they were convinced that revenues from room rentals and dining would support payments on the $112 million in bond financing they approved Tuesday. The center's next biggest chunk of money is a $50-million gift — $40 million for construction and $10 million for a programming endowment — from UCLA alumnus Meyer Luskin and his wife, Renee, the couple after whom it will be named. UCLA officials emphasized that the Luskin donation could not be used for an off-campus facility.
However, critics say the plan poses unfair competition to Westwood hotels and could generate too much traffic. They also challenge UCLA's contentions that the center will not be a true commercial entity and thus, guests will not pay occupancy taxes.
David Greenberg, an attorney representing the Save Westwood Village neighborhood organization, said the project "poses great risks to UCLA" because tax authorities could decide years later that the campus is liable for those taxes. He urged regents to instead consider a conference center without the hotel. Greenberg said he would again voice opposition in September when the regents are scheduled to sign off on the final design and environmental studies.
Construction is expected to start next summer with completion set for mid-2016. The center was moved from a previous campus site, where it triggered protests because it would have replaced the beloved faculty club.
On Wednesday, the regents also are scheduled to vote on a 2012-13 budget that would freeze undergraduate tuition at the current annual $12,192, not including room and board, and endorse Gov. Jerry Brown's November ballot measure to increase some taxes. But UC leaders said that if the ballot measure fails, students could see a 20.3% mid-year tuition increase, more than $2,400.
The new state budget will provide the 10-campus UC system an extra $125 million next summer if it keeps tuition stable. If the tax measure is rejected, UC would lose that money plus an additional $250 million in state revenues.