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MESA/IRVINE / NEWPORT BEACH

A Center of Inattention Has Plans to Raise Profile

July 31, 1998|STEVE CARNEY

With its tiny redwood forest, coastal sage scrub and dozen other native ecosystems, the Environmental Nature Center sits like a green jewel hidden amid the busy streets that surround it.

That's the problem: It's hiding in plain sight.

"It's amazing the number of people who live in the area who have never heard of this place," said Bo Glover, the center's executive director.

Potential visitors to the 26-year-old sanctuary whiz by it, missing the tiny sign that announces a 2 1/2-acre oasis lies out back.

So center officials are in the midst of a $1-million fund-raising effort to buy the property next door so the center can expand and increase visibility.

"The purchase of the property is essential to our future," Glover said. "We're hidden behind these buildings, and when you're supported by the community, the community needs to be aware of you."

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District owns the property, which now houses the High Hopes rehabilitation center for victims of head injuries.

The property has been appraised for $536,000, and the district and the nature center are negotiating over the price and lease conditions.

So far, the center has collected $315,000 in donations, enough for a down payment. But the staff wants to eventually tear down the old structures and build anew.

"I'd like to see as little asphalt as possible," Glover said. "We try to block out the outside world as much as possible."

Many visitors say that's exactly why they come to the center at 1601 16th St. "It's really nice to have a change of pace from the street and the cars," said Nurit Rothenberg of Irvine, who visited the center recently with her friends and their children.

"You feel like you're in another place," added Aleksi Rapkin of Newport Beach. "It reminds me of when I was in camp as a kid."

Many workers from area businesses stop by for some lunchtime solitude, and the center hosts 10,000 schoolchildren a year on field trips and summer camp visits. Many of today's campers are the children of the first generation to visit as kids.

"I like the redwood forest and the waterfalls. It's nice and cool," said 7-year-old Katie Pedersen of Newport Beach, heading home after day camp.

She learned about crystallization and freezing points by making ice cream, created imprints of various leaves found at the center and also made new friends.

"I can see birds and butterflies and I like to hear the sound of the waterfall."

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