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Claremont Is Divided Over New Campus

Education: Groups protest choice of site for Keck graduate school, saying it should remain open space. Out-of-court agreement will preserve part of the tract.

April 08, 2001|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The debate over a proposal to build a new campus for the seventh and newest of the Claremont Colleges is driving a wedge between those who cherish this scholarly city's academic heritage and those who treasure its open space.

In little more than three years, the proposal has become a pivotal issue in this college hamlet known as "the city of trees and PhDs" about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It has been the subject of Claremont City Council hearings, rallies, a referendum drive, a lawsuit and vociferous protests.

The Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences wants to make its permanent home on a slice of the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station, an 87-acre, partially wooded preserve just north of the colleges.

Building that new campus for Keck, a graduate school established in 1997 and devoted to meshing bioscience and management, is proving to be about easy as unraveling the mysteries of DNA.

While Keck's inaugural class of 28 students is working in a temporary research and development facility southwest of the colleges, other students are using tactics pioneered by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First! to stop the project.

In the latest scuffle, as many as 100 students converged on the colleges' main business office at 3 a.m. March 26 and blockaded it for 28 hours. Some of the students then chained themselves to barricades they created using garbage cans, fresh concrete and large pipes.

Protester Lenny Molina called the technique "fighting concrete with concrete."

"Nothing we genetically engineer [at Keck] can make up for the loss of this natural habitat with its rare coastal sage scrub," said Molina, a student at Pomona College.

The barricades were designed so that only the students could reach the chains. Eventually, police in riot helmets, aided by a forklift truck, carted off the protesters while they were still tethered to the garbage cans. Nine students were arrested on suspicion of trespassing, and the colleges temporarily suspended all those involved.

But that doesn't deter Molina and his cohorts. They've vowed more disruptions until the colleges promise they will never build on the land. "We'll tie ourselves to bulldozers if we have to," said Molina, a thin, wiry junior wearing Trotsky-style glasses.

Even Keck's inaugural bash last fall had to be relocated from a large tent on its temporary campus south of the colleges to a conference room because of a protest by opponents of construction at the field station.

In this town built by transplanted New England professors and ministers a century ago, where the leafy lanes have names such as Yale and Harvard, the latest turn of events has caught some off guard.

"I was surprised at the intensity of the feelings and the protracted nature of the protest," Keck Graduate Institute President Henry Riggs said of the latest incident.

However, sooner or later, he said, the college will be built on a portion of the field station. "We're not backing away from that land. It is being held for future colleges," Riggs said. "We are going to use the 11.4 acres. The question is timing . . . we're not in a great rush."

The field station, at the northeast corner of College Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, was established in 1976. A partially wooded area with coastal sage scrub, sycamores, willows and a small lake, it serves as an outdoor laboratory for college and school botany classes.

The nearby Claremont Colleges were inspired by England's Oxford University. Keck and each of the prestigious schools that make up the Claremont Colleges--Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps and Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna and the Claremont Graduate University--are autonomous and each has its own campus, students, president, faculty and style.

The colleges' 6,000 students can select classes from any of the other institutions as well as use their libraries and facilities. Though the colleges are independent, they jointly manage much of their business operations through the Claremont University Consortium.

Riggs said the land for the new campus was acquired decades ago and has always been reserved for academic buildings. The consortium set aside the land for Keck in 1997, the same year the college was founded with a $50-million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

KGI, as academics call it, is designed to develop professionals who have both business acumen and graduate-level scientific skills.

Plans call for Keck's enrollment to grow to about 125 students, with a few PhD candidates sprinkled among those seeking master's degrees. The consortium hopes to build an 85,000-square-foot complex of offices, classrooms and research facilities.

After two years of contentious hearings and meetings of various city bodies, the City Council last summer approved an environmental impact report and development agreement for the new campus.

Soon afterward, a community group, the Friends of the Bernard Field Station, sued the city and colleges, saying the environmental report for the project was inadequate.

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