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UCLA faculty, staff show strong support for proposed conference and guest center at hearing

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Numerous UCLA faculty and staff members voiced strong support for the proposed Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center during a public hearing on the project's draft environmental impact report held June 5 at the UCLA Faculty Center.

"UCLA is a world-class research and educational institution without adequate facilities to host conferences such as ours," said Steven Peckman, associate director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA, who described the challenges of hosting annual conferences that include Nobel laureates on a campus that lacks adequate conference space or easy access for those attending.

"Lots of us have been agitating for a conference center for several decades," added comparative literature professor Kathleen Komar, who hosted academic conferences in Puerto Rico and Redondo Beach when she was unable to find space at UCLA. "One of our overwhelming needs is the capacity to mount conferences here on campus."

The June 5 hearing was designed to gather public comment on a 724-page draft environmental impact report (EIR) that details everything from air quality and noise impacts to greenhouse gas emissions and aesthetics. Such hearings are legally required when an EIR is prepared for a campus building project, offering neighbors and the campus community a chance to share their thoughts. A previous hearing in November gave the public a chance to suggest issues that should be covered in the EIR.

The Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center would be constructed at the center of the campus, on property currently occupied by Parking Structure 6, utilizing part of a gift from the Luskins, who are alumni and longtime supporters. The proposed seven-story building would include 25,000 square feet of meeting space and 250 guest rooms.

The center would be entirely self-sustaining, UCLA officials stressed, not utilizing any state funds or tuition revenue, and would help UCLA compete with other top-tier universities for important conferences.

"We convene. This is a natural, central function of all universities," said Christopher Waterman,
dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. "Having a conference center on this campus is not icing on a cake. It's an essential ingredient in the batter."

Outside hotel conference space often lacks the resources needed to host an academic conference, like breakout rooms and video conferencing, said UCLA Extension dean Cathy Sandeen.

While some critics suggested that a conference center on campus should not include hotel rooms, faculty emphasized that guest rooms and dining facilities are a vital part of the project.

"Some of the most important activities happen when people are having a cup of coffee," said philosophy professor David B. Kaplan.

Mark Peterson, a professor of public policy and political science, agreed, stressing that time spent in a common place after a conference has ended "is extremely important for advancing academic ideas and networking."

In reply to those skeptics who fear that a conference center would create more traffic at UCLA, J.R. DeShazo, an associate professor of public policy and director of UCLA's Luskin Center for Innovation, said hosting a conference on campus while requiring attendees to stay off campus creates far more vehicles trips than if everyone were to stay at UCLA. "Therein lies the primary environmental advantages of this," he said.

In fact, UCLA currently has the lowest traffic levels since record-keeping began more than 20 years ago.

UCLA's conference and guest center would not compete with local hotels for tourists and other business travelers. Guests must have business with the university in order to book a room, similar to policies at the UCLA Guest House and UCLA's Tiverton House, which offer a combined 161 rooms that are frequently at or near capacity.

The project would be funded by $40 million from the previously announced Luskin gift and approximately $112 million in financing. Officials said the financing would have minimal impact on UCLA's long-term debt.

The Academic Senate's Council on Planning and Budget reviewed the center's proposed operating plan earlier this year and determined that the financing model for the project is sound and that UCLA could benefit from additional conference space and affordable guest rooms.

Pending approval of the EIR, financing and design by the UC Board of Regents, construction would begin around the summer of 2013, with completion expected by 2016.

"I predict it's going to change the qualitative experience of our faculty and scholars," said former acting chancellor and distinguished law professor emeritus Norman Abrams. "It's going to be a very good thing for this campus."

Written comments on the draft EIR will be accepted through June 29 at 5 p.m. and can be sent to: Tracy Dudman, UCLA Capital Programs, 1060 Veteran Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90095-1365.
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