After four frustrating years trying to expand their campus near Calabasas, Soka University administrators have announced plans to develop a liberal arts college in Orange County.
The 100-acre campus in the planned community of Aliso Viejo could open as early as 1999 to about 300 undergraduate and graduate students, with an eventual enrollment of about 2,500.
How the new campus would affect the school's scenic property at the corner of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway remains unclear, but it nonetheless has sparked intense speculation over Soka's plans and over a bitter two-year legal battle for the land.
The university wants to expand its 300-student language school in Calabasas into a 3,400-student liberal arts college. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, however, wants the land for a public park and has won the right to seize the property through eminent domain.
At least for now, Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvan said Tuesday, plans to expand the Calabasas campus remain on track. The environmental impact report on the expansion is scheduled to be released later this month.
Ourvan said the Aliso Viejo site would allow the school more flexibility both in how it uses its 660 acres in Calabasas and in how it fights the conservancy's legal attacks.
"This frees the university to the task of educating students," Ourvan said. "Things in Calabasas are not going on the schedule we anticipated. This will allow us to get on with the business of being a school and, in effect, frees us up to be a lot more flexible to pursue settlement of the condemnation case."
Soka will take possession of the Orange County property after the current owner, the Mission Viejo Co., obtains necessary building permits from county officials. The land, southwest of the San Joaquin Hills Tollway, is zoned for 395 homes, but can be changed to educational use with only minor adjustments to the community's master plan.
The cost of the property was not released.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky characterized the new campus as a retreat from the school's plans in Calabasas, calling Tuesday's announcement "a major turning point in the Soka saga. I think it means, when you play it all out, that Soka has cast its line in Orange County.
"Calabasas is, at best, a secondary location," Yaroslavsky said. "Clearly this means the Calabasas site is not the end-all, be-all of their existence in Southern California."
In contrast to the hostile response Soka received from residents in the rugged mountains ringing the Calabasas site, the school's proposal has been welcomed in Aliso Viejo, an unincorporated community of 22,000 near Mission Viejo.
It would be the first full-campus private university in south Orange County.
Over time, the school plans to build a library focusing on Pacific Rim research, a performing arts center and an art gallery, in addition to playing fields and classroom buildings.
"We're looking forward to the exciting educational opportunities Soka will offer our residents and the fine recreational and cultural facilities the university will provide for its students," said Bob Fisher, president of the Aliso Viejo Community Assn.
Residents in communities surrounding the Calabasas site were ebullient as well, even though the university's long-term plans remain a mystery.
"This is really great news," said Les Hardie, a past president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. "This is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, but it is a helluva lot better than what we've been fighting for the past four years."
Residents and parks officials have long coveted Soka's property--which includes the historic mansion of razor magnate King Gillette--for use as a visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Although the Japan-based university has offered to share the site with park agencies, it has refused to sell it outright. In late 1992, the conservancy launched condemnation proceedings to force the school to sell.
Late last year, a judge ruled that the conservancy has the right to take the land. Later this year, a jury will decide how much the school should be paid for the property. The conservancy is prepared to pay about $20 million.
Conservancy Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston said he was uncertain how the Aliso Viejo campus would affect the condemnation action. Edmiston has long said that the conservancy's aim is to acquire parkland, not to stop Soka's proposed expansion.
Many nearby residents, however, consider stopping Soka the primary goal--and the condemnation as a way of achieving that end. If the expansion plans fall apart or are scaled back severely, Edmiston asked, will the public still support the conservancy's plans to purchase the property?
Times staff writer Len Hall in Orange County contributed to this story.