Barbara Bry
Barbara Bry speaks at the City Council meeting. Image from city TV

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a building permit for a long-delayed Hillel religious center for Jewish students at UC San Diego.

Councilmember Barbara Bry, who represents the area, asked for a restriction on future expansion and creation of a community advisory group.

“This is a very hard day for me,” she said before moving for approval. “People I’ve known for a long time and respect are on both sides of the issue.”

Councilmember Scott Sherman said change in a neighborhood is always difficult, but he believed the center would be an improvement.

Rendering of UC San Diego Hillel
A rendering of the UC San Diego Hillel project. Courtesy M.W. Steele Group

“They’ve downsized this project to the point where it looks and feels like the other buildings in the neighborhood,” he said.

Plans call for construction of three buildings totaling 6,500 square feet and a small public park on what is now a vacant triangle of land at Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Village Drive across from the La Jolla Playhouse.

A permit was issued 11 years ago for a larger center, but delayed by a lawsuit, a subsequent 50 percent reduction in  project size and a lengthy environmental review. In the interim, Hillel has operated out of a home adjacent to the site.

Opponents told the council they believe the project is out of character with the neighborhood, and will create noise and parking problems.

“It’s just going to be humongous compared to what’s around there,” said Bob Steck, first vice president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, which rejected the project at an earlier meeting.

“Why does it matter so much? The noise…It’s a congregation of young people directly across the street from single-family residences,” said Julie Hamilton, attorney for the opponents.

Neighborhood resident Ross Starr argued that Hillel isn’t a religious organization at all but a student center and therefore not allowed in the area.

Rabbi David Singer, executive director of Hillel at UC San Diego, said the organization had carefully listened to residents’ concerns and modified the project in significant ways in an effort to find a compromise.

“We heard concerns about the size of our project so we have cut the square footage of our facility in half,” he said. “We have a project that is consistent with the community plan.”

Singer called the nearly 18-year-long effort to build the Hillel center “a saga that has stretched on far too long,” and told the council that “now is the time to please let Hillel build.”

Robin Madaffer, an attorney who has represented the project on a pro bono basis for nearly 20 years, said it was clearly permitted in the single-family neighborhood because of its religious nature.

Rep. Scott Peters, a former City Councilmember, weighed in from Washington with a statement in favor of the project.

Clergy and lay leaders from the nearby synagogues, including Beth El and Beth Israel, spoke in support of the project because of its focus on religious values for college students.

Several speakers called the land a “blight” and an “eyesore” that would be replaced by a well-landscaped project providing a visual and acoustical barrier for the neighborhood. Others noted that parking shouldn’t be a problem because students won’t give up a parking space on campus to drive to a center a few blocks away.

According to a city staff report, the three buildings that would make up the center would vary in height and sloping roof lines and allow for “a harmony of scale” between the project and the existing development pattern of single-family dwellings in the neighborhood. A plan to include 27 parking spaces should be enough to handle the anticipated programming, the report said.

Location of Hillel project
Google Earth image shows the location of the project. The home currently used by Hillel is in the lower left.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.