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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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