Right in the heart of Claremont, Calif., is an expansive 86-acre swath of undeveloped and rugged land -- a rarity in Southern California -- populated by endangered plant and wild life. Just off the main drag, the natural habitat has become the town’s iconic promotional shot, used by local businesses and government much as photos of the famous "Hollywood" sign are used by their counterparts in Los Angeles.
Still, a portion of what many locals consider a paradise could be paved over for, of all things, a parking lot that is being dubbed "environmentally sensitive" by its planners.
The virgin property is owned almost entirely by the Claremont Colleges -- a consortium of five undergraduate and two graduate institutions all located in the town. The property is also home to the Bernard Field Station, an academic facility and ecological landscape run by the consortium for research in the biological and environmental sciences. The land surrounding the field station is valuable to researchers: it features a vast natural growth of coastal sage scrub -- a rapidly vanishing type of ecosystem in which a number of endangered plant and animal species flourish -- and a small lake. This being suburban Los Angeles, some locals are amazed that the land has been preserved as long as it has.
“Other than the mountains, there’s no natural land left,” said Stephen Dreher, field station manager. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s there was still much more open space and natural vegetation with plenty of orange, olive and avocado orchards. Now, much of this is fairly recently developed land in Southern California. When you look at a satellite image, this property is it.”
The westernmost portion of the property is currently owned by just one consortium member, the Keck Graduate Institute. When high-profile student protests in 2001 halted the newly founded institution's plans to build its campus on a plot next to the field station -- the consortium had provided it with permission to build on the land -- Keck moved its campus elsewhere in town. Now, having gained full ownership of the plot from the consortium in 2004, Keck is looking to sell its 11.46 acres adjacent to the field station. It is currently in negotiations to sell it to another Claremont consortium member, Harvey Mudd College.
Noel Brinkerhoff, a Keck spokesman, said the plot of land has been appraised at nearly $11.4 million and that the institute looks to gain as much from its sale. Although Keck spent no money to fully acquire the land from the consortium after its original plans for construction failed, Brinkerhoff said the institution will use any profit gained from its sale as its leadership sees fit.
Harvey Mudd announced in October that, if it acquires the plot, it plans to build an “environmentally sensitive ‘green’ parking area” on the site. Preliminary plans for the parking lot include solar shades that generate electricity, plug-ins for electric vehicles and bioswales to block any harmful run-off. Mudd officials stated that the lot is necessary to support the “green” renovation of one of its existing on-campus buildings, located across the street from the plot. The City of Claremont requires that parking spaces be located within 800 feet of any new construction, and Mudd officials say that a parking lot on the Keck land would meet this requirement.
Don Davidson, a spokesman for Harvey Mudd, said the institution has not approached the city to seek a variance from this parking requirement. He added that the Keck plot was most convenient for the institution’s purposes and that any alternative locations for parking, even with a variance, would be too far from the new construction on its campus. Still, Davidson qualified that Mudd would not use the entire plot for parking. He noted that the institution will preserve some portion outside of its parking area for research by those using the adjacent field station.
If Mudd is sold the property, a third consortium member, Claremont Graduate University, has signed a memorandum saying that it will purchase a portion of the plot from Mudd. Ester Wiley, a Claremont spokeswoman, said it has yet to decide what it will do with its portion of the plot if the deal is finalized. She did say that the possibility of Claremont situating its newly founded school of public health on the site was among the options being considered.
Although the sale has not been finalized, both students and professors at nearly all the colleges in the consortium are concerned about the irreparable harm that could be done to the natural habitat. The prospect of building a parking lot, in particular, has generated much derision.
“Parking lots cannot be green,” reads a letter published by Students for the Bernard Field Station, a group founded by students within the college consortium to protect this undeveloped land. “They cannot be environmentally sensitive. It violates all principles of environmentalism and sustainability to suggest that the destruction of native habitat for the creation of a parking lot can be justified as green. Let there be no mistake: development of a parking lot or [Claremont] public health facilities on the [Keck] parcel will not be remembered for their hybrid plug-ins or attractive solar panels and bioswales, but for the irrevocable damage they committed to an irreplaceable, rare ecosystem.”
Paul Keller Ort, Pomona College senior and co-writer of the student letter, said the term “green” is often used to describe new energy-efficient technologies in order to justify environmentally destructive construction and development. It is far more important, he said, to protect the natural habitat of the land surrounding the field station. Ort said he has used the land throughout his college career as a lab and resource in a number of ecology classes and independent studies.
Students at Pomona, which is another consortium member institution, are not the only ones concerned about this potential development. On Wednesday, Pomona's faculty voted nearly unanimously for a motion encouraging its president to work with the consortium to preserve the plot from development. Nina Karnovsky, a Pomona biology professor, said she and other faculty members hope that Pomona will take a more active role in the preservation of this land, adding that many have encouraged the college to place a counter bid to purchase it.
Even though the Keck plot represents only a portion of the land used by consortium students and researchers, Karnovsky said its demolition would ruin a significant the portion of the land that is virgin. Other portions of the land near the field station are recovering from prior development, but the land on the Keck plot is almost entirely untouched.
“Looking back, I know they’re going to regret this decision if they go forward,” Karnvosky said of Keck and Claremont’s proposed plans for development. “It’s hypocritical. They don’t understand no matter how green a parking lot is, they’ll have demolished one of the rarest habitats in the U.S. It’s a biodiversity hot spot. There are so many plants that we have in this treasure, right here next to our campuses where our students can study. There’s no equivalent place where we can do this. Once they build a parking lot, it’ll be ruined.”
Davidson said Mudd officials are cognizant of concerns from consortium students and faculty as well as local community members. He added that, if it is sold the property, the college plans to have as minimal an effect on the property near the field station as possible.
It is unclear when a deal on the property and the final development plans for it will be announced.