The Calabasas land occupied by the campus of Japan-based Soka University has long been coveted by the national parks system for use as the headquarters and visitor center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
In fact, state and federal park officials in June had arranged a meeting with university officials for last Sunday, so they could discuss their interest in acquiring the school’s 248 acres off Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway.
But the parks officials were shocked last week when the university announced that it had more than doubled the size of its campus with the purchase of 332 additional acres of land in Calabasas.
They had been alarmed since April when Soka officials said they planned to increase the scope of its operations over the next 25 years from a 80-student language institute to a 5,000-student liberal arts college.
The parks authorities said they had been assured by Soka officials during further talks at the end of June that no more land was being sought for the campus.
“I am surprised and aghast,” said David Gackenbach, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Golden State Freeway and includes the Soka property. The parks officials have expressed interest in the original campus site because of its buildings and its geographic access to various trails and the recreation area’s maintenance yards.
The meeting on Sunday went ahead as planned, although the topic of discussion had been changed. Instead of acquisition, state and federal officials took the opportunity to propose a land exchange with the university.
A top university administrator said he would convey the proposal to his board of directors but expressed opposition because the American officials had no specific site to trade, a spokesman said.
The offer was presented at a meeting between Soka University officials and Gackenbach; Joseph Edmiston, director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and Dan Preece, district superintendent of the state park system.
Campus spokesman Jeff Ourvan said Soka University administrators had hoped that buying the additional acreage would address environmental concerns by allowing the college to spread out and leave large swaths of land undeveloped.
He also said campus officials’ memory of the June 28 meeting differed from that of the parks officials. “They carefully recollected that no such commitment was made,” he said referring to the purchase of additional land.
The April announcement of the plans to expand from a short-term English-language training institute to a four-year liberal arts college also prompted angry reactions from state and federal parks officials.
From the park perspective, adding more land is no improvement, said Edmiston.
“That would just mean more land in between the buildings for lawns or Japanese gardens or something. . . . We’re talking about a park to be open to the public,” he said. “And the impact of 5,000 students on Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road is still going to be there.”
Within days of the April expansion announcement, parks officials said they would do everything they could to preserve the land, including condemning it if necessary.
Condemnation is a court procedure used by public agencies when sellers are unwilling to give up their land, under which a judge mandates a purchase price.
The land swap, if approved, would avoid such action.
Ourvan said Hiroshi Okayasu, Soka’s general director and second only to its president, reacted skeptically to the land-swap idea because of the “inability of Mr. Gackenbach to submit any concrete proposal.”
“We didn’t have a clue as to any specific idea or land and in fact we’d be very surprised if Mr. Gackenbach could come up with a piece of property as ideal for our purposes as this one,” Ourvan said.
He said it was unlikely Okayasu would have an official response for another two to three months, when his next trip to the United States is scheduled.
In the meantime, Ourvan said, the university will discuss its long-range plans with neighbors. He said Soka had no immediate plans to submit development proposals.
“If they can find a better spot, we’d be open to that, sure,” Ourvan said of the proposed land exchange. But he also said the university considered its Calabasas location ideal.
“It’s not a question of money to us but a question of value, and we feel this site is very valuable to us for its beauty and our vision of establishing a university that is both academically functional and environmentally sensitive,” Ourvan said.
But the spot is also ideally suited as a focal point for the park system, Edmiston said of the mountain conservancy. It is not only scenic, Edmiston said, but located midway between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway, and would afford both seasoned hikers and casual picnickers easy access to the mountains.
The national recreation area has no visitors center, which makes it difficult to attract the public into the mountains. Edmiston said most visitors use only the beaches.
Edmiston said parks officials had no other piece of land in mind to offer Soka University. But he said if university administrators were amenable to the idea, “we will take their criteria and hire a consultant and do as exhaustive a search as possible” to find the best site for the school.
Edmiston and Ourvan described Sunday’s meeting as cordial. It lasted about 90 minutes, mostly consumed by language interpreters for both sides.
The national park system has been interested in the Soka site for 12 years, Gackenbach has said. The park service tried to buy the land in 1986 but lost to Soka University, which purchased it for $15.5 million from the Church Universal and Triumphant.
Edmiston said one advantage to purchasing land elsewhere and trading it for the Soka site was that the cost could be more affordable to the park service.
An appraisal of the original 248 acres is under way.