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From high above, the southeast corner of Hoover and 32nd streets near downtown would appear to be some of the only developable land between the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Staples Center -- a parking lot, a large field used by the USC women's soccer team and a 1970s-era academic building not nearly big enough for its occupant, the L.A. branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
This square block belongs to the Reform-affiliated university, which leases the field to USC, and the 5.2 acres offer a lot of real estate on which to grow. The question HUC-JIR officials recently took up is: How?
"Here you have all this land," Dean Steven Windmueller said Monday, standing outside the seminary's large glass doors. "The question is maximizing it. From the bicyclist over there on over to the soccer field, which is huge, and the part of the parking lot we lease to USC -- it's exciting to think about what you want to become."
Discussions are nascent, and few options have been ruled out by HUC-JIR. Possibilities could transform this patch of University Park between USC Hillel and the fraternity houses -- from expanding the two-story, 55,000-square-foot building (more than a third of which is in the basement) to tearing it down and starting anew. As USC leaders lay out the university's development plans for the next quarter century, HUC-JIR officials are discussing how they might use this moment to increase the already close relationship between the neighboring schools, both academically and physically.
"[USC] President Sample and I have talked in general terms," said Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR president. "There are discussions that are taking place in all these areas. But what we have is an extremely friendly relationship. We have been sister institutions for more than 35 years now. The hope on our part is that this relationship can continue to grow even deeper and that it will become stronger in the years ahead."
Officials for both schools said it was too early to talk about whether they are considering a joint development on the HUC-JIR property or whether a future academic building there would be leased to USC.
"We haven't been formally asked or said we will do any specific development," USC spokesman James Grant said. "There has been a lot of discussion about an interfaith center but we don't have anything concrete."
Another indicator that anything formal would be years off is HUC-JIR's lack of a building campaign, which is probably wise considering Temple Israel of Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevard Temple are already competing for donations from the Reform community to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. And USC currently is focusing on adding student housing, not academic buildings. But the university's master plan will address easing density on campus, Grant said. And that likely would mean building on property nearby.
HUC-JIR moved to the neighborhood in 1971, after USC's then-president lured the school from Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, its home for 14 years. In the years that followed, the two schools developed a relationship unique in academia. Unlike the ties between, say, Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University or HUC-JIR's New York campus and NYU, where seminary students can take classes at the secular universities, HUC-JIR and USC share students, faculty, facilities and academic programs.
"It's great synergy; it works perfectly. They feed off each other's strengths," said Stanley P. Gold, a member of HUC-JIR's board of governors and chairman of the USC board of trustees. (Because of this conflict of interest, Gold said he has stayed out of discussions between HUC-JIR and USC.)
Graduate students in the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service can receive a joint master's degree from USC in business administration, social work, public administration, communication management or public arts management. And many of HUC-JIR's 16 professors also teach at USC, some through the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which is run by HUC-JIR but solely for USC undergraduates, more than 600 of whom matriculate through the courses each year.
"It is a way to touch a population we wouldn't otherwise touch. And people care about that," said Joshua Holo, director of the Louchheim School. "As USC's profile gets more and more elite and more prestigious, we are trying to reformulate undergraduate Jewish studies to reflect that, to make a stronger program that we hope will be able to send future graduates to graduate schools in Jewish studies, to Jewish professional schools, rabbinic schools, cantorial schools. We are working closely with USC to do that."
Currently, the two campuses are discussing a joint doctoral program in American Jewish studies and possible a cantorial program at USC's Thornton School of Music, Ellenson said.
But after a quick tour of HUC-JIR, it's difficult to imagine how the approximately 100-student school can continue to expand its offerings without new digs. Classrooms are tiny, windowless, often shared and mostly bare. The 105,000-volume library is 40 percent over capacity, relegating the less-requested books to a room in the basement. Most of the basement, for that matter, has been converted into offices and classrooms.
"We've maxed out our space pretty well. We can't do much more with it," said Windmueller, whose second-floor office will be used this week for interviews with prospective rabbinical students because it has a small conference table. "What's ultimately realistic are classrooms that work for us -- adequate space, windows, better technology -- offices for faculty and research areas. We can all dream about a big new building. But what we need are the basics."