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Requiem for a Claremont Neighborhood

Many of the tree-shaded California bungalows and inventive block houses that edged 6th Street and upper Mills and Brooks avenues in the Arbol Verde district of Claremont are gone now, replaced by weed-covered lots or raw asphalt for parking.

Gone also is the neighborly spirit, sense of place and history that once distinguished the modest six-block enclave as an evocative vestige of this college town’s post-graduate bohemian community and barrio. For years, because of restrictive covenants elsewhere, Arbol Verde was one of the few places Latinos could settle.

Indeed, Arbol Verde (Spanish for green tree) was once known simply as “the barrio” and spilled over into the bordering cities of Montclair and Upland.

But a road-widening program 20 years ago, carried out in part to serve the six Claremont colleges, destroyed dozens of homes, the neighborhood’s only church and social center, split the community and scattered many families.

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But doing more damage to the neighborhood fabric over the last two decades has been a questionable expansion program pursued with a restive persistence by neighboring Claremont McKenna College (CMC).

Some long-term homeowners persevere. But most of the area’s 90 or so houses have been purchased over the years by the college. More than a dozen of the houses, including some of distinct historic interest, have been demolished. Others have been stripped of detail and painted a bland institutional beige, and what shabby landscaping has been done is fenced by unappealing chain link. A disturbing quiet prevails.

And all this in accordance with a zoning ordinance approved last year by the City Council, despite objections by the city Planning Department staff, the city Planning Commission, and an independent environmental impact report.

The report stated that the zoning plan championed by the college would displace half the neighborhood, compromise the integrity of the remainder and, in effect, destroy the area’s cultural and architectural significance.

The report was brushed aside by a council resolution of “overriding concern.”

“It was an example not just of bad planning, but also of bad government,” observed Jenniffer Jaffe, a professional planner who, as head of Arbol Verde Neighborhood United, had with others protested the plan.

The council’s decision was, not coincidentally, reflective of a special, questionable relationship between the city and the colleges.

Beneath its academic patina, Claremont is a very company town, with many officials affiliated in various ways with the colleges and beholden to them. Meanwhile, after years of a protracted, bitter battle by residents here to preserve the neighborhood from encroachment by CMC, it appears the institution has prevailed.

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Although CMC said it wanted to improve the neighborhood while considering vague plans for new athletic fields in the distant future, the reality beyond the public relations rhetoric is that through arbitrary demolitions, neglect and evictions it destabilized Arbol Verde.

“They just said one thing, smiled, and did another, beating everyone down while the city turned its cheek,” said Reatha Reedus, who has lived in Arbol Verde for 19 years.

Reedus was one of nine long-term activist tenants recently served eviction notices from CMC. They have until the end of June to move.

Over the years, Reedus, Jaffe and others had organized residents to protest the encroachment, to appeal various attempts by CMC to compromise the area’s residential zoning, to decry the effects of spot demolitions, and with the help of volunteer professionals, propose alternative plans to accommodate the college’s perceived needs without rending the area.

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They have repeatedly contended that the school, with about 800 students, could easily meet their needs on its existing campus, or by imaginatively sharing facilities with the five other Claremont colleges, or by expanding on vacant land it owns elsewhere, but not in a vital, historic neighborhood of affordable housing.

There also was the charge that the college was “block busting” the neighborhood: buying up properties, allowing them to deteriorate, evicting tenants and generally depressing values to allow them to purchase more property there more cheaply.

The college has repeatedly denied the charges. It contends that it only has been acting as “as a very responsible landowner who has invested millions of dollars into the improvement of the neighborhood,” and who hopes someday to use it for expansion.

It was this conflict between college and community set in an architecturally interesting neighborhood with an engaging multicultural legacy that attracted my attention eight years ago to do a story there.

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The specific battle then centered on the planning designation for the area, whether it should be “residential,” as preferred by the residents, instead of the institutional “semi-public” the college sought. If zoned residential, it was thought that the city would be obligated by its general plan to preserve the neighborhood’s physical and social character and conserve the existing housing.

The residential designation was subsequently upheld and the neighborhood exacted a promise by CMC to back off its expansion policy, better maintain its properties and generally act to stabilize the neighborhood.

Long ago, I learned not to rely on what most institutions and people say, rather on what they do, and so I made a point over the years to drop by and check up on the state of Arbol Verde. What I have witnessed is a once viable neighborhood’s spirit and landscape being nibbled away.

The emerging portrait does not speak well for the city’s resolve or CMC’s promises.

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“If Arbol Verde was at 10th and Indian Hill (in the tonier historic area of Claremont), this devastation wouldn’t have been allowed,” Reedus said. Ever the optimist, Jaffe interjected wistfully that perhaps it still can be stopped.

People in Claremont talk of the battle between CMC and Arbol Verde having gotten too personal; of the college winning and some residents losing.

But in this battle that saw a modest historic neighborhood repeatedly compromised by a faulty planning process, an insensitive local institution and a irresolute City Council there really are no winners, only losers.


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