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Culture Shock : Many Object to the Growing Sprawl of Institutions Atop Sepulveda Pass

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With no master plan and scant public attention, a colony of culture and learning has bloomed along an unlikely stretch of Mulholland Drive atop the Sepulveda Pass.

The one-mile length of rustic parkway straddling the San Diego Freeway has quietly become home to eight private schools in addition to one of the nation’s largest synagogues, a Jewish university and the enormous Bel-Air Presbyterian Church attended by former President Ronald Reagan.

Its genesis represents a marvel of cooperation in the Santa Monica Mountains, scene of so many vitriolic battles between developers and neighboring homeowners.

Over the next year, however, campus expansions and the opening of the massive Skirball Cultural Center will bring new scrutiny to this ridge-top haven of higher education, with mountain advocates lamenting the increasing “commercialization” of the Sepulveda Pass and neighbors fretting over an increase in traffic and visual clutter from nonprofit institutions that pay no property taxes. Social critics, meanwhile, wonder whether too many of the city’s cultural resources are being concentrated in a place ill-served by public transportation.

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Can more culture and education be a bad thing? That depends on your point of view.

“For many people, a drive through that pass is their only encounter with nature all day,” said Corin Kahn, a land-use attorney who helped write city laws protecting the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from widespread development. “It’s a real shame to start filling up this unique scenic resource with prominent uses--even if they are museums and schools.”

The concerns became more immediate recently when the Skirball, a Jewish history museum and arts compound scheduled for a limited opening in October, applied for a license to sell liquor until 2 a.m. In addition, Steven S. Wise Community High School recently revealed plans to construct a three-story, 80,000-square-foot classroom, theater and gymnasium complex on a Mulholland Drive cliff that borders Sepulveda Boulevard.

In a more limited development, the Curtis School--a well-hidden private elementary and middle school operating on 27 verdant acres adjacent to the San Diego Freeway--two months ago won permission from the city to tear down three-quarters of its current structures to install 23 new classrooms.

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The moves have whipped up the worries of longtime champions of the Santa Monica Mountains, who see hard-won gains against development slipping away, especially as the new Getty Center museum and arts complex emerges astride a prominent ridge at the southern edge of the pass, two miles below the Skirball site.

“These things turn into octopuses--their directors look around and see open space, and imagine an expansion,” said Alan Kishbaugh, former president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., a homeowner advocacy group that lobbied for 21 years to win protection for the area. “They start small and end up huge. Now you’ve got these structures trying to compete with the Getty. They don’t seem to realize that if you pave the mountains over, you’ve lost them.”

Still, concrete and visionaries have conspired to create a niche for education atop the Sepulveda Pass that is uniquely protected by city law: While institutional and commercial development is banned along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains under rules of the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Specific Plan, city officials made an exception for this stretch, calling it an “institutional corridor.”

Although such hard-line conservationists as Kishbaugh complain that the corridor concept was a mistake from the start, it has created an oasis for schoolchildren and scholars without parallel in the city.

Starting at the western end of the corridor, the schools’ names are a roll call of Los Angeles privilege, innovation and scholarship: Westland. Mirman. Steven S. Wise. Berkeley Hall. Curtis. The University of Judaism.

Their founders say they represent what the community gets in return for the loss of natural ridgelines and vistas of chaparral.

Westland landed first, organized amid the counterculture spirit of the mid-1960s as a leader in the progressive education movement. Today director Janie Lou Hirsch bundles her 120 children into six “groups” instead of grades, and favors firsthand experience over rote learning.

Westland’s opposite number lies near the other end of the corridor, at Curtis School.

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Though a Westland teacher might cut a non-reading 6-year-old some slack by declaring he isn’t ready yet, a Curtis teacher would launch a full-court press to get the child up to speed.

“We try to be centrists--and we believe in academic absolutes,” said Headmaster Clay Stites.

On a recent Friday, none of the bashfulness common to 8-year-olds was evident as children clad in blue and white uniforms and surrounded by graceful coral trees and green lawns took delight in public speaking. Like other school administrators along the corridor, Stites believes that architecture and environment strongly influence behavior.

To parents concerned that their children will be too isolated at Curtis from the gritty realities of urban life, the headmaster offers his campus setting as an answer of its own. “I tell them not to sacrifice their children to their politics,” he said.

“If you can send your kids to a peaceful, wholesome environment, why wouldn’t you?”

Somewhere between the two poles lies Berkeley Hall, at 66 acres the largest hilltop campus. Started in 1911 on Western Avenue as a Christian Science school, it opened its country club-style gates on Mulholland Drive in 1980 after a bruising battle with environmentalists over plans to flatten several ridges for classrooms and sports fields.

The fight nettled school President Caroline R. Kuhn, whose ire still flares at recollections of the way nearby homeowners forced her to scale down plans dramatically.

“We love and cherish this mountaintop too,” she said.

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Indeed, conditions imposed on the school’s low-profile construction left it so well camouflaged with landscaping that it is virtually invisible from Mulholland Drive. Hawks circle overhead, quail alight beside walkways, and most classrooms and science labs offer sweeping views of the San Fernando Valley.

Nonetheless, evidence of the loss of mountain terrain is sobering. During a drive around the property in golden late-afternoon light, Kuhn showed off a football field built over a ravine on dirt bulldozed from another ridge, and a softball field blasted from bedrock. Jagged rocks peppered with the fossils of eons-old sea life line service roads around each.

But the teaching of values is not ancient history here. The school opened to children of non-Christian Science families five years ago, but it still begins each week with a chapel service that focuses on a single admirable quality, although Kuhn is quick to insist that she does not run a parochial school.

Down the road a quarter-mile, Dr. Bruce Powell runs a parochial school, without apologies. Just two of the 180 students at Steven S. Wise Community High School are not Jewish. The lunch truck offers kosher meals (hamburgers with mayonnaise and cheese on the side), and all students must take Hebrew and a Judaic studies course each semester.

Powell’s campus has proved to be the most controversial along Mulholland. Sprawled around a hairpin curve, the narrow 10-acre property houses six temporary buildings behind a black chain-link fence that despondent neighbors characterize as a well-groomed trailer park.

Powell, on the other hand, considers it his “little piece of Jewish heaven.” Fulfilling the Reform Jewish community’s dream to build the first major high school for its children in Los Angeles, the campus lies only half a mile from its parent organization, the Steven S. Wise Temple. Powell’s students also use archives and labs at the nearby University of Judaism, and plan to take advantage of the Skirball Cultural Center, a stone’s throw downhill.

In fact, it is precisely this proximity of so many institutions that has caused unease among critics. Where Powell sees synergy, Barbara Dohrmann sees crowding.

“Enough is enough,” said the attorney, a 30-year resident of a nearby Mulholland Drive development called Bel-Air Skycrest. “I have nothing against schools, but they are overloading the capability of this little roadway. . . . It takes me 20 minutes to drive a mile and a half to the freeway now, when it used to take five.”

The future will only bring more traffic. Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise aims to raise $25 million over the next five years to build a landmark high school complex in three stages on the southwest side of a cliff now topped by the school’s soccer field. Today, the Milken Family Foundation will announce a $5-million contribution toward that target, enabling groundbreaking to begin in six months, Zeldin said.

The goal: to increase enrollment by at least 50%.

Since the new complex will seek to obtain a front door on Sepulveda Boulevard, its commuters will compete for room on the already crowded road with visitors to the Skirball across the street. The museum expects 150,000 visitors a year, starting next April. A year later, many of the Getty Center’s 1.4 million annual visitors will begin driving the same road.

Powell says his school already has set up car pools to relieve congestion--and, indeed, all campuses along Mulholland Drive cooperate through an informal committee to stagger their operating hours.

Despite such mitigating measures, the cumulative effect of each new building has alarmed activists who work to preserve the mountains for recreation and open space.

“Each institution creates more precedent for another one just like it,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., who fears a pass ultimately filled with hotels, stores and restaurants. “It’s not a stretch to imagine a commercial use permitted to work in conjunction with a pseudo-commercial use like a museum.”

It is just that sort of incrementalism that has local residents worried about the Skirball’s application to sell a full line of booze past midnight at its cafe.

The center’s executive director, Cindy Miscikowski, described her organization’s application for late hours on its liquor license as merely pro forma --promising that a full bar permit is intended mainly for receptions. Miscikowski was a longtime deputy to Councilman Marvin Braude, whose district includes the Skirball center.

Her promise has not cut any ice with some critics. A city planning department hearing June 5 on the liquor license is expected to give the public its first close look at details of planned operations at the 150,000-square-foot museum complex, which first won its city building permit in 1983 and has been constructed in fits and starts since 1989.

“If we’re going to run cocktail parties on a street as bad as Sepulveda, I don’t think that’s such a red-hot idea,” said Pat Bell, president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., who lives down the road in the Mountaingate community.

For Bell and others, the burning issue isn’t just alcohol and traffic--but rather a wistful plea for more attention to what has already been lost in an area where just a short time ago, motorists could drive along Sepulveda at night and not see a single light on the slopes of the pass.

Nonetheless, the push of culture away from the core of the city follows irrepressible historic patterns, according to William Fulton, editor of the California Planning and Development Report.

The Skirball’s parent institution, Hebrew Union College, lies near USC in one of the city’s first suburbs of the 1920s. The new cultural center, and the Wise high school, are being established right in the center of the city’s population of 500,000 Jews--roughly 90% of whom have migrated away from Downtown to live either in the San Fernando Valley or West Los Angeles.

Rabbi Zeldin believes that the Skirball and the high school will bring “dignity and honor” to the mountains, and that they belong there for spiritual reasons. In fact, he notes, the temple has lifted an appropriate quote from the Book of Psalms to decorate the ark that holds its sacred books.

“I will lift mine eyes unto the mountains from whence shall my help come,” reads the tapestry. “My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Hilltop Haven

Eight private schools, a university, a church and a museum are clustered at the top of the Sepulveda Pass on and near Mulholland Drive--a corridor unique in Los Angeles.

(Schools: Students)

1. WESTLAND SCHOOL: 125 STUDENTS 2. MIRMAN SCHOOL: 320 STUDENTS 3. STEPHEN S. WISE MIDDLE SCHOOL: 160 STUDENTS 4. STEPHEN S. WISE NURSERY SCHOOL: 325 STUDENTS 5. BERKELEY HALL: 180 STUDENTS 6. STEPHEN S. WISE COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL: 224 STUDENTS 7. CURTIS SCHOOL: 530 STUDENTS 8. UNIVERSITY OF JUDAISM: 200 STUDENTS 9. STEPHEN S. WISE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: 700 STUDENTS

*

INSTITUTIONS

A. BEL AIR PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: 1,900 families B. SKIRBALL CULTURAL CENTER: 150,000 visitors annually C. STEPHEN S. WISE TEMPLE: 2,900 families

Source: Individual schools


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