Rendering of planned campus
A rendering of the planned campus. Courtesy Berggruen Institute

Opponents of a plan to build a campus for a policy institute in the Santa Monica Mountains say it sets a dangerous precedent for commercial development in a fire-prone area, while its backers say it is more environmentally sensitive than the large estate homes that would otherwise be built.

Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen is seeking to develop the Berggruen Institute campus on 450 acres originally zoned for 28 single-family homes. The institute has agreed to preserve nearly 95% of the privately owned property as open space and to create new public access hiking trails.

The proposed project in Brentwood includes a one-story, 109,880-square-foot main building with an additional 21,000 square feet of residential quarters for scholars-in-residence and visitors. Three pavilions totaling 30,000 square feet are also proposed. Construction will stay within the footprint previously approved for housing, according to a project brochure.

The proposal is subject to a multi-year environmental review process that has only just begun, but some residents of a nearby gated community are already upset about the plan. The Mountaingate Open Space Management Association is urging city planners to deny the institute’s application for development and will present its objections to the Brentwood Community Council on Wednesday.

The association argues that the think tank should not be characterized as an educational institution — a designation that relaxes zoning restrictions — and that the development will create security, traffic and fire issues.

The definition of educational institution is designed to cover publicly funded colleges and universities or those offering academic instruction prescribed by the state, according to a statement released by MOSMA.

Steve Soboroff, a Berggruen Institute L.A. Committee member and senior project advisor — though better known as a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission — says an educational institution is exactly what is envisioned.

“The Berggruen Institute will be — first and foremost — a campus for scholarly study,” Soboroff said in an email to City News Service.

The Berggruen Institute was founded in 2010 in Los Angeles and is dedicated to “engaging great thinkers to develop and promote long-term answers to the biggest challenges of the 21st century,” according to the organization’s website.

The institute’s academic and research work is supported through partnerships with public and private academic institutions — including USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford — and includes efforts to reform California’s state and local government and address issues including economic inequality and climate change.

The development’s detractors also says that the recent Getty Fire should be a wake-up call reminding community leaders of the risks posed by building in a high-risk fire zone.

Soboroff said former Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Bill Bamattre has been enlisted by the institute to develop a fire safety plan with a goal of improving upon current safety conditions. He also pointed out that during the Getty Fire, Los Angeles city firefighters used the institute’s private hydrants and roads to help battle the blaze.

The Berggruen Institute buildings will be at least a football field away from the closest house in Mountaingate and Berggruen himself has no plans for a home there, according to a letter Project Director Chris Kiley sent to local residents.

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