Critics sue over UCLA hotel plans
Opponents of UCLA’s proposed 250-room hotel and conference center on campus have filed a lawsuit that challenges the project’s tax exemptions and contends it would not be financially viable if it paid all the federal and local taxes required of commercial hotels.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court late Wednesday by the Save Westwood Village organization and others, also says that existing UCLA guesthouses and visitor centers already break laws by not charging overnight guests occupancy taxes. That poses an unfair advantage over privately owned hotels, the suit alleges.
Supporters of the litigation want the UC regents to reverse their September approval of the $162-million campus hotel and center, which is slated to start construction this summer and be completed in 2016 on the site of a parking garage at the center of the Westwood campus. The suit contends the seven-story project will waste public funds and contains “a hidden and improper subsidy” by avoiding tax payments and being partly financed through tax-exempt bonds.
UCLA stands by plans for the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center, named after the donors who pledged $50 million to the complex.
In a statement released Thursday, the university insisted that the proposed hotel and existing guest houses can avoid charging occupancy, property and some other taxes because all those facilities’ visitors are there for educational reasons, such as attending academic conferences or touring the campus.
“UCLA remains confident that all of our facilities are in full compliance with all local, state and federal laws and we fully expect to prevail,” the statement said.
The lawsuit casts a wide net. Besides naming UCLA, the UC regents and the Luskins as defendants, it contends Antoinette Christovale, the city of Los Angeles’ finance director, failed to perform her duty of collecting occupancy taxes from UCLA. And beyond complaints about UCLA’s guest houses in Westwood, it says that the school’s Lake Arrowhead conference center and retreat hotel should be paying taxes to San Bernardino County.
UCLA is in the hotel business but tries to avoid calling it that, said Sandy Brown, a Westwood resident and activist who is among the plaintiffs. “We are not talking about the University of Hyatt. We are talking about the University of California,” she added.
If UCLA promised to pay all the taxes required for a commercial hotel and appeared able to make a profit, Brown said: “Let them build it.”
In October, critics of the UCLA hotel plan filed a separate lawsuit that challenged its environmental and zoning review.
The project initially was designed to replace a beloved faculty center but that provoked protests. It was then moved to another location just south of the Bruin statue. Last year, some regents pressed UCLA to investigate buying an existing hotel instead. UCLA prevailed after saying that local hotels could not accommodate the conferences it wants to host.
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