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A Conference Center Could Be Coming Soon


By Mary Daily

Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM

You're a preeminent scholar planning to visit UCLA for a symposium, and you can't wait to go to Westwood. But the conference might not be held on campus and you definitely won't be able to stay overnight, because there's no place for you. That's about to change, however, as an on-site conference center moves inexorably toward reality. Deans, professors and friends of the university say it can't happen soon enough.


A pencil sketch of the courtyard in the proposed UCLA Conference Center. Illustration by Hornberger+Worstell.

Imagine you‘re attending a conference at UCLA. You're booked into an affordable hotel near LAX, and you've got a rental car. Most of your meetings are in Covel Commons, but a couple are in De Neve Auditorium. You've heard about great cultural and athletic events on campus, but you're not sure how to find them or if you have time before heading back to the hotel.

Now imagine this: You're booked into an equally affordable seven-story conference center in the heart of campus, mere yards away from Ackerman Union and Pauley Pavilion. Your meetings are at the conference center, where you also can eat and work out. Between meetings, you see exhibitions at the Fowler Museum and browse in the bookstore. One night you catch a basketball game at Pauley; the next, you see ballet at Royce Hall. Westwood Village, with restaurants, shopping and movies, is a short stroll down the street.

That second scenario could soon take shape. The Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center is tentatively scheduled to open by summer 2016 on the site where Parking Structure 6 is now located, at the north end of Westwood Plaza. Groundbreaking will likely begin in mid-2013. Before construction can begin, the University of California Board of Regents must approve the project's design and budget, plus an environmental impact report. A vote is expected this year.

Original plans called for placing the center on the current site of the UCLA Faculty Center, but a number of faculty members expressed their strong personal connections to the existing facility. In response, UCLA leadership selected a new location at the center of campus. Some have expressed concern that having the new center there may create traffic problems, but, in truth, traffic levels on campus are falling and last year were the lowest since recordkeeping began more than 20 years ago.

The facility would provide 25,000 square feet of meeting space, 250 guest rooms and 125 underground parking spaces. The projected daily room rate is below the $200 average for hotels in the surrounding area.

The Living Room of the Campus

"As a world-class university, we have more and more compelling reasons to accommodate campus-related travel," says Peter Angelis, assistant vice chancellor, UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services. He cites other universities, including Duke and Stanford, that operate on-campus hotels. "It's particularly important when you have a business school and a medical enterprise.

"The new center will scale the university down to an intimate level. It will be like the living room of the campus," he says. "We want guests to have a profound experience here, to feel the ambiance of the campus and sense the character and flavor of the university." Christopher Waterman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture, thinks the center would make that happen. "It will enrich the ethos, the feeling of our campus," he says. "It's all part of the circulatory system of the university: Visitors come here and engage with us, and we share all that we have to offer. A great university should be a great host." He envisions conference guests as a fertile audience for UCLA's many cultural offerings.

The estimated cost of the center is $152 million, with $40 million covered by a gift from UCLA alumni Meyer '49 and Renee '53 Luskin. The remainder of the cost would be financed and repaid from the center's revenues. No tuition money or state funding would be used. An additional $10 million from the Luskins would set up an endowment to assist academic departments in hosting conferences at the new center after it opens.

Last year, UCLA hired a well-known hospitality industry consultant to analyze the need for a conference center on campus. The findings confirmed strong demand, but you just have to talk to faculty members to draw the same conclusion. Many not only see a compelling need but also feel frustrated over the current lack of such a resource. They believe it would be convenient and would also foster collaboration and raise UCLA's visibility within the academic realm.

We're Going to Do It Wherever We Have To

"Academics convene," says Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs. "We're going to do it wherever we have to." He believes "the campus misses a great number of opportunities to host important thinkers, leaders and practitioners by not having a facility for academic programming." Gilliam cites four large upcoming conferences to be hosted by the Luskin School but held elsewhere, mostly in downtown Los Angeles. "Those visitors will arrive in and depart Los Angeles, never having seen UCLA, even though they attended a UCLA conference," he laments.

Others on campus, such as deputy librarian Susan Parker, feel they can't fully participate in their academic communities when they can't host colleagues on campus. "It's frustrating to pass up opportunities to bring conferences here that would be of value not only to the librarians but also to the students in the library program," she says. "But we simply can't find cost-effective accommodations. We used to do four or five two- to four-day events a year but we don't try anymore. So Stanford will have them and we'll go up there."

When faculty members preside over scholarly organizations, they want to showcase their home campus as their colleagues do— return the hospitality. Literature professor Kathleen Komar served as president of one such organization, her term sandwiched between peers from Harvard and Princeton. When it was her turn to host the group's conference, she looked to Redondo Beach, where she found affordable hotels with meeting space. She likes that the new building will sit "right where students live and there are a lot of activities."

Promoting UCLA as a Global Brand

Vasilios Manousiouthakis, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, sees a high-class center as "essential to promoting UCLA as a global brand. Los Angeles is a destination city for many purposes; it has a resort-like appeal for prestigious conferences. The center is especially critical to promoting interactions across the Pacific," he says.

For Irvin Chen, director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, the problem isn't lodging for the 200 to 300 people who attend AIDS-related conferences here every year, but meeting rooms. "It's hard to schedule the two or three days of meetings," he says. "We have to start looking very early, and sometimes we have to change our dates."

The Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics brings 2,000 visitors a year to campus for 20 week-long workshops. "We could put on a different kind of conference if we offered a central place to stay near the meetings," says Russel Caflisch, IPAM 's director. "We could hold research talks, receptions and breaks right there. People could wander to the sculpture garden and get away from the crowd; that can be really stimulating."

Interest in the new center is spreading. Anna Graves, a Los Angeles attorney who chairs an annual restaurant industry conference in partnership with UCLA Extension, has tried to hold the event at Covel Commons, but she found the parking inadequate. "We'd love to do it on campus," she says, adding that a campus location would more "tightly brand the event"— which attracts investment bankers as well as industry professionals— as part of UCLA.

But no one looks forward to the new facility more than dentistry professor Richard Stevenson '82, D.D.S. '86. UCLA hosts more continuing education classes in dentistry than any other institution, with participants from all over the world. "We always have trouble finding them a place to stay," Stevenson says. "They want to be on the Westside, so they book whatever they can find."

A couple of years ago, Stevenson hosted an international meeting at UCLA, with lodging at the W Hotel. Later, the same organization hosted a meeting at an on-campus hotel at Indiana University. "It was awesome," he says. "It had restaurants and room service. It was cool to live on campus."