Site 653. The chief point the homeowners' petition seeks to make is that the parcel was, until recently, designated as open space and, according to the city's guidelines on open space, it should have remained as such.
Parents know the scenario well. A child's toy lies untouched for hours, days, or months until Little Johnny picks it up one day and begins to play with it. Suddenly, Little Janie can think of nothing but that toy and will engage in all manner of bad behavior to get it. That scenario is being played out in La Jolla and in court.
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein: "A minimum of 10,000 square feet will be landscaped and maintained at our expense."
The children in this case are the local branch of Hillel — a nationwide outreach serving Jewish university students — and a collection of homeowners from La Jolla Highlands, a neighborhood across Torrey Pines Boulevard from the University of California at San Diego. The metaphorical toy over which they're fighting is a quarter-acre strip of land squeezed between Torrey Pines, La Jolla Scenic Drive, and La Jolla Scenic Way. Left stranded when the roads surrounding it were built, the triangular piece of land stands alone surrounded by asphalt. A section of ice plant along Torrey Pines Boulevard is the only thing growing on the property. Completely ignored for years, this barren plot has been the focus of a raucous dispute. The dispute started when Hillel of San Diego's directors approached the City of San Diego about purchasing or leasing Site 653. "That was about five years ago," says Neal Singer, vice president of Hillel's board. "Our administrative office is in a facility which we share with five or six other ministries. Very small. All we have room for is a desk. In terms of counseling or activities or anything, we had no place to go."
"When I do counseling," adds Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, who runs the Hillel branch, "I have to meet the students outside somewhere on campus, under a tree maybe."
"And what has happened over time," Singer continues, "is that we have had to lease facilities on an as-available basis from the university to hold religious services. For instance, the Jewish sabbath is on a Friday night and on Saturday. And so typically we do a service Friday night followed by dinner, and for that we've leased for a long time now the facility at the International Center [on campus]. So about five years ago, we decided that we really needed a facility of our own, a place where kids could come study or use the computer or research stuff in the library or have counseling sessions with Rabbi Lisa."
The chief criterion for possible sites for a new Hillel center was proximity to the university. "In many of the private universities," Singer explains, "they are on campus. But there is a church-state separation issue with the UC system. At UCLA it is right across the street in a residential neighborhood. At UC Santa Barbara it is in Isla Vista, in a residential neighborhood. In Berkeley it is right across the street from campus. We wanted to be in a similar location. There were a couple of [vacant] properties that the university owned that we inquired about. But they were adamant that all the property they had which adjoins the university was slotted for development. So it was incumbent upon us to find a non-university-owned property in proximity to the university."
They found a site that met all criteria in site 653. "So we went to the city," Singer says, "and started discussing the possibility of buying or leasing that site. And it was a long process. They needed to deem it surplus first. And finally in 2000, they had declared that no one had any future need for it, so they could do something with it. And so the city decided to issue what is known as an RFP, request for proposals, to solicit ideas on what to do for that site. They advertised it, and there were two responses, one of which was ours."
The other proposal was from a coalition of homeowners from the adjoining neighborhood of La Jolla Highlands. Though they declined to be interviewed, Jennifer Friend, an attorney representing them, explains, "The homeowners in the area banded together and actually raised funds to maintain and operate that triangle of land as an open park space. They put together an official proposal that basically talked about landscaping and maintenance, and they had committed to paying for that continued maintenance themselves. The City would still be able to retain ownership of that parcel, but the maintenance of it would be paid for by the residents within the community."
Singer resumes his narrative, "The City put together a four-person panel, two members of the La Jolla community and two city employees, to review the responses, and they voted to recommend to the city council acceptance of Hillel's proposal. That went before the city council in November of 2000, and they voted 8 to 1 to authorize exclusive negotiations with Hillel. So we started down the path of negotiations and the neighbors filed the lawsuit."
The suit Singer speaks of is actually a petition for "writ of administrative mandamus," which, Friend explains, "is a legal action that challenges an administrative decision by a public entity."
In their petition, the La Jolla Highlanders contend that their proposal for site 653 "wasn't given any consideration whatsoever by the City," Friend says. "And one can take a look at the way the request for proposals process was done, and one could argue that there was no consideration given to any request for proposals other than the ones submitted by Hillel and that the whole RFP process was done with the sole purpose and intent of allowing Hillel to submit its proposal for the lease of that space. And the commitment from day one by the city to lease that space to Hillel could lead one to question whether or not there was ever any intent to consider any other proposal."
"That property sat there for 40 years!" Singer responds. "It wasn't until we went to the city and said, 'We want to buy it. What can we do?' that the process started. And they're right, we wanted exclusive negotiating rights. After all the work and effort we put into it and finding the site and everything, we didn't want somebody else to come in. But the city council said, 'No, we have to have a fair process and issue an RFP.' They opened it up and advertised it, and Joe Developer could have come in there and built two houses. But nobody else responded but us and the neighbors."
The homeowners raise other issues in their 30-page petition. "I feel," Friend explains, "that...consideration should have been given to whether it's improper to only review one use of land that has to do with a religious purpose when in fact there are other proposals that have been submitted that are nonsectarian."
But the chief point the homeowners' petition seeks to make is that the parcel was, until recently, designated as open space and, according to the city's guidelines on open space, it should have remained as such, and therefore, a request for proposals on the land never should have been issued. Singer responds, "The La Jolla Community Plan Amendment came before the council in May [of this year], and on a 6 to 3 vote [which took place June 4, 2002] the council voted to declare that the property is and has always been zoned single family. And single family allows the use we're proposing. In the 1975 plan, there were two different discussions in the La Jolla Community Plan about site 653. In one section, it said the site is owned by the city, and they can do with it as they please. In another section it said site 653 should be landscaped. It didn't say by whom, it didn't say under whose ownership. That was the '75 plan. In 1995, the plan was amended to designate that site as open space but it was never designated as open space and the zoning was never changed. It was just a recommendation that says it should be open space. What the council did by their last vote was bring the designation back to single family to coincide with the underlying zoning. So now the zoning and the community plan are in sync."
Calls made to the city planning department confirm that the site is zoned single family. Single-family zoning allows for religious institutional uses such as neighborhood churches. But the homeowners, in their petition, challenge the city council's June 4 action, saying, "This land-use designation change was done for the sole purpose of allowing Hillel to lease and/or purchase site 653 and build a student center upon the property."
Friend says the petition was filed as a last resort. "The homeowners have done everything within their power to resolve this matter without the need for litigation."
Singer shakes his head. "The neighbors have refused to meet with us from the beginning."
Rabbi Goldstein adds, "We understand that open space is a really important thing and that the more open space there is, the more beautiful it is, and so one of the things that we said -- and it got incorporated into the city council's action in May -- is that a minimum of 10,000 square feet will be landscaped and maintained at our expense."
"I get a little heated about this," Singer says, "because it's frustrating to me. If this was so important to the neighbors, why did it sit there all these years just the way it is? Why didn't anybody do anything about it? It wasn't until we said 'We want it,' that the neighbors got crazy."