Officials of tiny Soka University tried to reassure their Calabasas neighbors Wednesday night that concern for the environment would dominate their plans for a 5,000-student campus in what is now a serene meadow in the Santa Monica Mountains.
But the neighbors, who had been invited to the Mulholland Highway campus to hear details of the 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 Montenito. "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 332 acres, bringing its total landholdings to nearly 600 acres.
As outlined Wednesday, the university would grow in phases beginning soon with the addition of a Japanese language program, 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 to be 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. Davis said possible solutions to 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 U.S. 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.