When the University of California regents meet next month, they might decide a surprisingly contentious issue: whether to approve construction of a UCLA conference center with an attached hotel close to Westwood.

It’s surprisingly contentious because most businesses in Westwood would seem to welcome a big, new conference center nearby. After all, it would attract more visitors to the area – and pretty high-end ones at that. What restaurateur or shop owner wouldn’t want that?

In fact, many businesses are fine with the conference center. It’s the hotel they have reservations about. They fear it’ll bottle up the visitors. Since conferencegoers will only have to go upstairs to their rooms, they won’t need to walk to a nearby hotel. That means they’ll be far less likely to dine or drink or watch a movie in Westwood.

As a result, a business and community group called Save Westwood Village is opposed to the hotel portion of the plan.

And the nearby hotels? Well, you can imagine they hate UCLA’s proposed hotel.

For one thing, there’ll be plenty of rooms at the inn – 250 in all. That’s as big as most hotels in the neighborhood, such as the 208-room Hotel Angeleno (the round one near the San Diego (405) Freeway and Sunset Boulevard) and the 161-room Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel next to the Angeleno.

What really galls the innkeepers is that UCLA, thanks to its tax-exempt status, wouldn’t have to charge guests the city’s 14 percent occupancy tax. That would make the UCLA hotel an unfair competitor, they claim.

For that matter, the guests would not have to pay the 8.25 percent sales tax on food and other purchases they might make. So they’ll be incentivized to eat at the conference center.

The struggle has escalated recently. Opponents claim they’ve done some research and now have some real questions about whether the hotel could claim tax-exempt status. The UCLA hotel should have to charge occupancy and sales taxes, they believe. But that presumably would need to be determined in court, which implies delays and legal expenses for the regents and for UCLA.

And that brings up another question. If the hotel is not a tax-exempt enterprise, would that mean taxable – not tax-free – status for the $112 million or so in bonds sold to build the complex? If so, the hotel’s construction would be more expensive to finance.

Where does the UCLA faculty come down? Well, many obviously would love to have a conference center right in the center of campus. It would encourage meetings and educational confabs and make UCLA a better place generally. But some are skeptical that the complex, especially the hotel, will be profitable. And what happens if it is unable to pay its own way? Will money that the faculty depends on for the school’s educational mission have to be diverted to pay for the hotel?

The UC regents’ building committee last month approved the plan for the complex, which would be named the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center because the Luskins are donating much of the money to get it built. In mid-September, the proposal goes before the full board of regents. The fate might be determined then.

UCLA needs a good conference center. It deserves it. Westwood deserves it.

But UCLA is a public trust. It needs to be a good neighbor and keep peace with nearby businesses, its community generally and with the taxpaying public at large (not to mention donors and potential donors).

The solution seems simple. Build a grand conference center. Scale back the hotel.

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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