Officials of tiny Soka University in Calabasas tried to reassure their neighbors Wednesday night that concern for the environment would dominate their plans for a 5,000-student campus on what is now a serene meadow in the Santa Monica Mountains.
But the school's neighbors, who had been invited to the Mulholland Highway campus to hear details of those plans, remained skeptical that the proposed expansion from an 80-student language institute could preserve the mountain setting.
"I'd like to put my input in and say it's just too large," said Shirley Duryee, who lives in nearby Montenido Valley. "It's going to be too much impact on the community."
The Toyko-based university announced last spring that it wanted to grow into a four-year liberal arts college in the next 25 years. In August, community concern grew after a spokesman disclosed that the university had purchased an additional 332 acres, bringing its total land-holdings to nearly 600 acres.
As outlined Wednesday, the university would grow in phases beginning with addition of a Japanese language program this summer then becoming a two-year college in the year 2000 and continuing to grow incrementally until 2015.
"The university is very much aware of the beauty and the environmental nature of this property," said Steve Davis, an architect hired by the university to design the expansion. "They have asked us to enhance the use of that environment by people."
For more than a decade, state and national parks officials have wanted to buy the site and turn it into a headquarters and visitors' center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. They are continuing to look for government land suitable for a trade with the school.
At the meeting, university administrators continued to express doubt that any other property would suit their needs. County records show they have paid nearly $56 million for the property, which some real estate attorneys and brokers estimate at twice its market value.
In response to many of the tougher questions asked, primarily concerning traffic, university officials said they would discuss alternatives with their board of directors. Davis said possible solutions to traffic congestion on Mulholland Highway could include van pools, parking permits and limiting university traffic to non-rush hours.
Soka University, which also runs a 6,000-student college in Tokyo and a language institute outside Paris, was founded by Soka Gakkai leader Daisaku Ikeda. Soka Gakkai is a neo-Buddhist sect that critics and ex-members liken to a cult. Its United States branch headquarters is in Santa Monica and is called Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA).
But on Wednesday night, Soka administrators distanced themselves from the sect, saying they have no legal or financial ties to it.
"This university is not funded by that organization," Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvan said.
Yet Ourvan and other college officials have acknowledged in past interviews that most of the university's students both here and overseas are members of the sect. George L. Hingot, who coordinates the language institute and formerly headed a similar program at UCLA, estimated that up to half of the faculty are members of the sect.
"But the faculty don't even have to show their colors at all," he said.
And when asked in past interviews how the college land purchases were financed, Ourvan said financing sources included an endowment from Ikeda, which is based on royalties from his books. Former NSA members say those books are best-sellers because they are virtually required reading for members of the sect. Further evidence of the school's close relationship to the sect are sprinkled throughout Los Angeles County records.
In deed documents related to the most recent land purchases, George Odano, the college's vice-executive director, sometimes used the Wilshire Avenue address of the NSA headquarters as the school's mailing address. In remodeling plans for the Calabasas site filed several years ago with county planners, NSA is listed as the architectural firm.