Proposed Institute Raises Ire Among Westside Residents

By Victoria Talbot

    A massive new project that is designed to leave a small environmental footprint, but cuts across an established public open space easement in the former landfill area adjacent to the Getty Center was the subject of a nearly standing-room only presentation at the Skirball Center Sunday, organized by The proposal is the Scholars Campus at the Berggruen Institute, which is described as, “a peaceful environment where distinguished scholars and thought leaders develop and encourage new ideas for a changing world, and to propose practical solutions that can transform society-and humanity-for the better.” It is the brainchild of Nicholas Berggruen, once known as the “homeless billionaire” because he lived in five-star hotels. Berggruen, the investor and art collector with German and American citizenship, grew up in France and has settled in Los Angeles. His investment company, Berggruen Holdings, is registered in the British Virgin Islands. His charitable trust is in Bermuda. Los Angeles Magazine referred to the proposed development as a “21st century Monastery.” With 450 acres cresting the mountain, Berggruen’s design by Herzog & de Meuron incorporates some very 21st century sustainability, including a reduced carbon footprint, passive cooling measures, harvesting energy from methane produced by the landfill, rainwater collection and conservation, and a “dark sky” strategy for reduced light impacts. The institute claims that the project will minimize grading and promote reforestation, and “restore hiking trials in the most sensitive manner,” according to their website. At the Skirball meeting, however, a panel of local residents including members of the Canyonback Alliance, Upper Mandeville Canyon Property Owners Association and the Brentwood Residents Coalition, opposed the project. The project area encompasses open space in the former Mission Canyon landfill from Upper Mandeville Canyon to Mountaingate including two ridges above Mandeville Canyon running north to Mountaingate and south to Mt. St. Mary’s University. Within the area are the Canyonback Trail and Mount St. Mary’s Fire Road, where hikers and nature lovers can find chaparral and riparian habitats and enjoy panoramic vistas to the ocean. Berggruen’s proposal runs through land that cannot be developed, according to agreements between the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), a state agency, and the former owners of the Berggruen land, Castle & Cooke. The property belongs to the state of California and is held in trust to preserve the wildlife and lands for future generations, said the group. Several species of local wildlife inhabit the area, including bobcats, deer, coyotes, horned owls, quail, mountain lions, and a rich wilderness of native plants. The fragile ecosystem is endangered by overdevelopment, according to their website, which presents significant risk to the wildlife community from fire, traffic, noise and light pollution. The project proposal, which is only in the preliminary stages of outreach, and nowhere near approvals, is for a scholarly village with resident scholars’ homes imbedded in the terrain to reduce light impacts and eliminate the need for air conditioning; a main pavilion dominated by a water capture and reclamation unit, incorporating a scholar’s village with dining halls and meeting rooms on one ridge. The other ridge will incorporate the chairman’s residence and several visiting scholars guest homes. Along the ridgetop, a pathway would intersect what is now a wildlife corridor. The total residency would include hundreds of people, say opponents, adding hundreds of trips daily to an area that is only slated for fire road foot traffic. The alternative approved project is a 28-home development that Berggruen opponents support, as it is recessed from the open space area and not on public land. At issue is that agreement, which a Berggruen spokesperson said they believe leaves an opening to accommodate the ambitious project proposal. Ensuring wildlife protection, public access and fire safety issues dominated the presentation. Of particular concern to residents in Upper Mandeville Canyon is the narrow winding road that is the only method of ingress and egress for the 4,000 residents. Residents actually train annually for the possibility of evacuation, and panelists warned of the potential for methane gas igniting as a result of increased human interactions. A rendering of the Berggruen Institute campus. (see ‘BERGGRUEN’ page 19)