Editorial by R. Michael Rich 22 March 2011
In August 2010, members of the Faculty Center Association received a shocking message. Their association was in financial trouble, with the only choice for survival being the incorporation of the Faculty Center into a 300 room Residential Conference center. At an all members meeting in October 2010, the question was posed "what members would like in a new faculty center" and were told that the "train had left the station" with regard to a secret project that few had ever heard of. The members took action. Under Section 8 D of the bylaws, a petition was circulated to place the demolition of our Faculty Center on a ballot before the membership. On 24 January, a packed California Room saw the informational meeting our group hosted. The day after, UCLA announced its gift for the hotel project, hoping to quash opposition.
The outcome of this ballot was by no means guaranteed. Although many members opposed the Conference Center project, nobody knew how the membership would vote, reading the balanced arguments enclosed with their ballots. People wondered how many would even care. These arguments, both one page in length, argued both for preservation of the Faculty Center, and alternatively, for incorporation into the new hotel. We campaigned in the foyer of the Faculty Center, but that option was open to Administration sponsors of the project, who instead chose the official portals of all-employee email blasts, UCLA Today, the official Faculty Center website.
The total responses were 1,084- slightly less than half of the membership, but a record for any ballot ever held by the Faculty Center. The vote to preserve the Faculty Center was a decisive 3 to 1, a margin that one almost never sees it in any real life ballot situation. This vote is not by itself binding. The Board of Governors of the Faculty Center must decide whether to act upon it, and whether to inform the administration that it will not shut the doors on December 31, 2011, and that another site should be found for the hotel project. We very much hope that they will. The Administration has been both critical and unsupportive of the Faculty Center, a 50 year old organization that serves UCLA in many vital ways. In addition to serving 500 lunches per day, and hosting numerous meetings in its charming meeting rooms (every one of which opens to a garden space), the Faculty Center serves a community of emeritus professors, surviving spouses, and a broader community of UCLA Affiliates. If you are looking for the spirit and soul of UCLA, there are few better places to find it than in this building.
The employee family of the Faculty Center is just as special. Manager Ali Tabrizi personally loves the institution, as do many of the employees. You will not find that in a corporate hotel and conference center. The members voted not just for historic preservation, but to preserve a beloved ambience over which they have some control, and in which they have a stake.
The hotel/conference center that would replace our house is said to be good for UCLA, and is sold as a money making venture. We think the numbers don't add up. Projections require 70% occupancy and revenue per available room of $259 per night, rising to over $400 per night over a 10 year period. No hotel in the Los Angeles area currently achieves these numbers. And if this one were to fail, losses would be in the millions, and would be borne by Campus housing and hospitality services, which also, incidentally, runs student housing. UCLA is borrowing over $100M in revenue bonds to make this project work, and the interest payments (at 6%) must be paid, regardless of whether the construction cost is greater than planned, or expenses are higher than anticipated. While the campus as a whole assumes the risk, certain groups would benefit disproportionately, like the professional schools, which would likely use the new hotel and ballroom for large fundraisers. They would make money, and likely recruit new donors. The author has been to one of these extravagant events that was held in Pauley Pavillion. It's fine that the schools can use these events to raise money, but one is left skeptical about whether the project has any benefit to the Letters and Sciences.
Our Holmby-Westwood Property Association neighbors are opposed to the project as well. The hotel would tower 71 feet above the ground level, but it is already on a hilltop that overlooks their peaceful neighborhood. A hotel is a 24/7 operation with people and traffic running constantly, and would be a prohibited land use on the other side of Hilgard Avenue. As one might imagine, hotel owners in Westwood are unhappy. They must pay a 14% room tax to the City of Los Angeles- a tax from which UCLA would be exempt. How much of a difference is 14%? Well, consider a typical NBA basketball game where roughly 100 points are scored. In almost all games, awarding 14 points to a team would determine the outcome. In the case of these hotels, they are at a competitive disadvantage, and that's unfair, especially since financial projections indicate that at best, less than half the UCLA hotel's revenue would come from conferences and academic activities. In any case, if such a facility were to be built, why not in Westwood, with its proximity to restaurants, museums, and shopping, as well as transit hubs (not a dedicated airport shuttle as the hotel is planned to have).
The UCLA hotel would also obliterate one of the last tranquil areas of campus, adding to concrete jungle that is advancing up from South Campus. One need only look at the mess in the Court of Sciences to see what is happening. The architectural plans, kept secret until only recently, call for the removal of scores of mature trees and construction of a massive complex. We have to wonder, as well, how our economically diverse student body would take to a 4 star hotel on campus, complete with swimming pool, valets, and port cochere. Our campus is already sited in one of the wealthiest residential neighborhoods in the world. We believe when a student walks onto this sacred space, they leave their economic status behind, and that having a four star hotel operating next to our administration building, footsteps from the historical heart of campus, is an offense. And that's why the institutions we would like to consider our peers- Stanford, the Ivy League, Johns Hopkins, Pomona College, etc. do not have such facilities. Like our graceful Faculty Center, Stanford University has a one story building hailing from 1961, with a cathedral ceiling reminiscent of our Main Dining Room.
If we do save the Faculty Center, we must also listen to the voices of 269 members who voted for the hotel project. Our committee is concerned, and we worry about the issues that concern them, too. We know that the roof leaks and that there is much deferred maintenance. Crown molding and curtains that are not consistent with the mid-Century architecture. But fortunately, we live in a city which has world class expertise in such restoration. In the next few weeks, we will present cost effective visions for restoration that are both affordable and elegant. As for conferencing technology, the best and latest is 1080p for projection systems; we don't have stadium style rooms, but just about every other high technology for conferencing can be brought to bear. We believe that the Faculty Center can be restored not just to be serviceable, but to be a magnificent period restoration of which UCLA will be proud, and which will be coveted venue for private events. At present, UCLA is anticipating spending $3M to install a replacement faculty "club" in Ackerman hall-those funds, alone, would take us most of the way to realizing our vision for a restored, elegant, Faculty Center. Put another way, the cost of meetings at the proposed UCLA Hotel would be $390 per person, per day- a proposed $10M endowment might help bring that cost down to $290 (recall that would be a subsidy of $300 per person per meeting, and one envisages subsidizing maybe 8 meetings of 150 persons, per year). Or you could take the same $10M and restore the Faculty Center- the $100 (or less) per person per day, plus a $150 hotel room- and lower cost.
As I conclude this piece, I note the growing coalition that is now forming to protect, preserve, and renovate our beloved Faculty Center. We hope the Administration has heard this vote, and the other votes like it that are now taking place in many departments of the Letters and Sciences, and in our surrounding communities. Current events remind us that democracy is sweeping the world, and that governments are wise to listen to its voice.
In closing, I would like to speak from the heart. The preservation of a building speaks to the respect of heart and hand. A recollection that generations before us built the great University we now enjoy. The Faculty Center is not a lapidary monument like Royce Hall; it is a house that was realized as a dream of a faculty who joined together to raise from their own donations, the funds for its construction. This house was built by a generation who worked at the apex of the American Century. This was a generation that dreamed of landing on the Moon, and did; that dreamed of equality of race, and achieved it, whose women dreamed of the boardroom, and attained it, and which saw its greatest dreams bitterly dashed at the hands of assassins bullets. In this place, we preserve not just a building, but a way of life, that generation’s oasis of tranquility… and it can be ours as well. For the sake of my children and their children’s children, save this house.