By Andrea Carter
Editor note: A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the OB Rag.
The struggle continues to keep the historic CHE Café facility open on the University of California San Diego (UCSD) campus. This battle over a rare public, all-ages arts, food, and music venue should concern us all as it represents the canary in the coal mine for additional onslaughts of this nature to follow.
Undergraduate and graduate student government councils, respectively the Associated Students (AS) and the Graduate Student Association (GSA) are set to soon issue reports and recommendations to the University as to the CHE Café, its facility and the other cooperatives at UCSD concerning the lease issues, upgrades and dispute resolution. Recently, the councils moved in favor of adopting a joint resolution rather than two independent ones. In the coming weeks then the councils will be synthesizing their input and accepting more from students on these issues as well as from the CHE and other cooperatives.
The next move from University administrators will likely hang on these recommendations as the councils are regarded as the representative voice writ-large of all students at UCSD. Earlier in the year the University won an unlawful detainer lawsuit against the non-profit student-run Café and music venue, which is one of four cooperatives (Co-ops) on the campus.
The four Co-ops: Groundwork Books, The General Store, The Food Co-op and the CHE Café were operating under a joint master lease, signed in 2006. The original term expired and though there were multiple options to extend, the University contended these were not exercised and therefore it could then terminate the CHE’s lease with 30 days notice.
Under the Master Space Agreement lease, which was terminated as to the CHE, the AS and GSA students were given the task of arbitrating any dispute resolution between the Co-ops and the administration and certifying that the Co-ops were operating in the best interest of students.
The CHE Café requested dispute resolution in May before the lease was terminated from the AS and GSA but that request was denied and ignored. Shortly thereafter, an unprecedented “de-certification” resolution was passed by the GSA on June 2, 2014, upon which the University officially based the lease termination and which campus counsel assisted in drafting. Since then, the GSA and AS councils have revisited the issues for a more in-depth review asking the Cooperatives for more extensive information and documentation to revise their position on how to proceed.
Still, the CHE Café remains unsatisfied in that student leaders on the councils admitted that though they requested the production of so much extra documentation and information, the majority had not read any or most of it and that that they did not spend any time in committee discussing it. Some believe that if the Co-ops had their own distinct committee, dedicated time and attention could be devoted to these matters and in a more informed and impartial way. Still, the Co-ops have their doubts considering the recent behavior of the councils and the daily interaction and close relationships they have with administrators. Thus, it has been difficult for the CHE Café to regard the AS and GSA student councils as fair ombudsmen or impartial representatives for all students, despite some members’ support or stated advocacy for the cooperatives.
The CHE Café is also deeply concerned about the inadequacy of the draft committee proposals in not providing a real solution to the issues or including any measure which reinstates their lease or makes demands or mandatory obligations on the administration to verify their claims or produce documentation as the Co-ops have had to do. The Co-ops are in a position of having to prove student support and produce alternate, independent estimates at their own expense. The University is not scrutinized under the same standard or forced to share the same burdens.
The proposals mainly seek to bring back a standing committee comprised of student government representatives, University positions, and perhaps cooperative representatives. The committee was historically tasked with certification and dispute resolution functions. There are various suggestions and proposals being made from various people as to amending the role and composition of this committee if it does get voted back into being. Student and alumni input is being solicited. People can email the GSA president or more preferably, to speak at their meetings.
Student Support and Influence
In an email to a Che Café member, GSA VP representative for Diversity, Service, Equity, and Inclusion writes:
“My concern at this point, including the concerns of others is that we have heard strongly from community members and alumni. This is great; however, we are two student body governments that answer to current students. As a result, we need to see and speak to current students who are involved in the CHE.
Until I hear from a group of current graduate students, I will continue as planned with our proposal process and not reopen any side investigations that will stall the process. […] I need current student membership in the collective to stand up and get involved. In particular, I need graduate students to get involved.
I need the collective to realize that we are trying to help in this process, and I need the collective to realize that concessions will need to be made in the process and this will take some time to clear up. […] So, the message is clear, support student involvement (beyond petitions) and cooperation.”
So, yes, the message is clear, that UCSD students need to speak up more to the AS and GSA representatives in support of preserving the space and CHE Café organization in continuing to lease it because of the very valuable programming it carries out.
However, the CHE has long acknowledged that it is not an organization or a venue that is patronized by a majority of UCSD students, or only current students, and that is okay. It is a space that appeals to a certain sub-set or minority of students just as an engineering club, a theater group, or a fraternity does. And the alumni and community involvement is necessary to educate and train the current students who are involved in running the organization.
The CHE purports that students who do patronize, perform, or get involved with volunteering and work practicums at the Café or other cooperatives are greatly impacted and forever shaped by their valuable experiences there. And that is why both administrators and student government representatives should consider with high regard, not only current student input, who may not have had much or any interaction with the Café, but also, alumni, community members, prospective high school students, and performers who have been impacted by it.
Though not stated in the termination notice, the rationale top administrators and Chancellors have given orally in subsequent communications for the CHE’s lease termination was that there were unfunded repairs and decades of deferred maintenance that the University could not currently afford and that made the building unsafe.
The CHE Café contended that the repair estimates were grossly inflated and that the facility was safe for occupancy according to the Fire Marshal and that any other counter determinations by the administration were arbitrary and unfairly biased. The CHE Café has in the past gotten some estimates and is currently working to produce its own cost-estimate. If the CHE Café can prove the University’s estimates are high or inflated, it can perhaps convince students that the venue is worth keeping open.
Historic Value and Preservation
The CHE Café also is seeking to get students and administrators to recognize that the building itself will have to be preserved due to its historic and cultural significance and age.
Furthermore, other state and federal intellectual property laws apply to the murals and artwork adorning the structure that would likely prevent any moving or demolition of the facility. The CHE Café hopes that student government representatives can recognize this and help the University to hold the Café and the facility as a valued gem, an attraction for enrollment, and point of pride for the campus, rather than a budget cut target as administrator salaries, student fees and other expenditures seem to rise and miraculously find funding.
While the CHE Café still retains possession of the space for the moment because the University has not enforced its unlawful detainer judgment, it remains unclear what agreements apply as to possession and continuing operations. Administrators did attempt to strike an agreement with the CHE Café to have it ceaseany shows or public programming in exchange for continued possession but the CHE Café declined, yet has remained in possession. So far it has seemed to continue only using the facility for member meetings and events. This tenuous legal limbo has still had a chilling effect and has hurt the organizations revenues and ability to connect with students and do the outreach that the GSA is requesting.
CHE Café members believe this is also the administration’s strategic way to force the Café out of operation for good while repairs get delayed and stalled. In response, artists and performers in support of the CHE Café have called for a boycott of all performances and events at UCSD until the University allows the CHE Café to hold events and do programming in the facility.
Settlement Possibilities and the Davis Domes
A very similar situation occurred at the University of California Davis (UCD) from 2010-2012 with the Dome Housing called Baggins End. The housing built in the 70s was, according to the University in need of repairs and upgrades for fire safety and because the foam insulation was deteriorating. The University threw out enormous cost estimates and the “Domies” were told the Domes would be shut down. Similar protest and outreach to the broader community ensued and ultimately, a third-party, non-profit, the Solar Community Housing Association agreed to hold a lease with the University in exchange for paying for the requested repairs.
The Association would also be legally and financially liable under the ground lease, and responsible for managing and supervising both the repairs and overall operations. It seems the simplest and most streamlined approach. Could such a thing work here?
Whether or not the CHE Café reaches the unknown but sufficient quantum of student support for the councils will remain to be seen in the coming weeks and months. Regardless, the CHE Café maintains that it wants to work out a settlement with the University that would allow their organization to continue to lease the facility. And in the interim, the Café believes there is no reason why operations should cease, since it has been operating for twenty years, without incident. One or two more years, before upgrades get funded and begin will almost certainly be the same, without incident. The UCSD annual Sun God Festival incurred the tragic loss of the death of a student this past year and administrators are not cancelling the event for forthcoming years, so the Cooperatives view the administration’s moves towards them as over reactive and biased. The Café has continued to insist that if the building were truly unsafe it would have been deemed so by the Fire Marshal and yet it was not.
The Café is not opposing safety upgrades or reasonable shut downs to conduct recommended upgrades but they do not believe they should have to stop programming until construction begins and they want the backing and agreement of students to that end and a renewed lease with the University.