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Caltech's building plans stir neighborhood resistance

The usually harmonious relations between the Pasadena campus and nearby residents has been strained with plans to build a child-care center that homeowners say will increase noise and traffic.

March 04, 2013|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents on Arden Road in Pasadena post signs outside their homes protesting Caltech's proposed child-care center.
Residents on Arden Road in Pasadena post signs outside their homes protesting… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

In a move to expand the small but prestigious math and science school, Caltech is preparing to relocate a campus child-care center to make way for a new dorm. But neighbors in the tony Pasadena neighborhood are complaining that the new site is too close to their homes and would create a traffic nightmare.

Such town-gown issues are common in Southern California, where schools and universities share valuable stretches of real estate with their residential neighbors. The institutions are in a constant arms race to both attract students and find ways to accommodate them — leading to frequent clashes with the communities that surround them.

USC rankled its South Los Angeles neighbors in recent years with plans for a $1.2-billion expansion of student housing and academic and retail space. At UCLA, residents complained about initial plans for a new conference center and hotel that bordered their neighborhood; that plan has since been changed.

And, the Marlborough School, a private all-girls campus in Hancock Park, has a lengthy history of tiffs with the surrounding neighborhood. The school was locked in a 10-year legal battle with residents over a plan to raze a block of 1920s-era mansions to make room for a parking lot and soccer field.

At Caltech, the plan has strained a usually harmonious relationship between the community and the school and ignited fears that the campus will continue encroaching into surrounding neighborhoods.

Caltech began the process of relocating the child-care center early last year and notified neighbors in June after settling on the property that it already owns. The college has held several meetings with community members since then, said Hall Daily, the school's director of government relations.

The decision to move the center was spurred by a $25-million donation by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation to build a dormitory on campus. Some of the funds also will be used for the new child-care center.

The dorm will create enough room for all undergraduates to live on campus — which for decades hasn't been possible and has been a goal of the college, Daily said.

Opponents contend that the school did not do enough to inform homeowners and has not seriously considered the ramifications on traffic and noise in the neighborhood.

"We did everything we can," Daily said. "But at the same time, there is no way to address everyone equally and in some cases sufficiently."

Some neighbors say the artist renderings of the proposed buildings look ugly and cheap and will decrease home values in the community — where signs reading "Save Our Neighborhood From Caltech" have cropped up in recent days.

Plans calls for the new 13,000-square-foot center to be built on a vacant lot now used for storage. Caltech also owns several of the homes lining the border of the site. The three proposed buildings would accommodate about 50 staff members and 128 children.

A study conducted last fall by the city of Pasadena, and paid for by Caltech, deemed the effect on traffic in the area to be insignificant, but neighbors insist that spillover from major streets will get worse with yet another building.

At a community meeting last week, Dean Currie, Caltech's vice president for business and finance, told the crowd the center will be built to residential scale and have an unobtrusive presence. About 90% of those enrolled at the center are children of Caltech employees. Many of them park elsewhere on campus and walk to the center — alleviating some congestion, he said.

"We felt this was the least offensive thing you possibly could have there," Currie told the group.

The college planned to break ground last week, but following the barrage of complaints from neighbors at the meeting, it instead agreed to delay construction for about two weeks — giving the neighbors a chance to meet with Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau, who recently announced his resignation.

Some opponents fear that the project is too far along for their concerns to be properly considered.

Colleen Evans, who lives a couple of blocks from Caltech and the proposed site, said she never received notice from the school and hopes officials decide to build elsewhere. Because her home is on a hill, she said, sound from the campus carries directly into her backyard.

"It's not quiet and peaceful like it should be for a $5-million home," she said.

A facility with more than 100 children and outdoor play areas — including a track for tricycles — will create enough noise to become a nuisance, Evans said.

"Oh good, squeaky tricycles with screaming kids," she said. "It's going to be loud."

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