Harvard-Westlake is Digging Itself Into a Major Environment Controversy … Resistance Mounts

LOS ANGELES

DEEGAN ON LA---Predating by centuries, the existence of the Harvard-Westlake School, an institution that itself is over 100 years old, is the adjacent Coldwater Canyon mountainside they intend to invade with a new development project. It is a home and habitat for a variety of wildlife as part of the known wildlife corridor running East of the 405 through the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s also the home of a rare Oak/Walnut habitat. 

 

This environment and habitat, and all that thrives within it, is now being put at risk by Harvard-Westlake School’s plans to carve out a large chunk of the mountainside and build a three-level, 750-space concrete parking structure with a rooftop athletic field and associated lighting directly across Coldwater Canyon Avenue from the campus to which it will connect via a new, elevated and enclosed skybridge. 

Their proposed plan has been meeting strong resistance from a coalition of environmentalists, homeowners, activists and others in the community since it was first announced in 2013. “Any project that removes a wooded mountainside and replaces it with a lit up concrete monolith taller than the mountain itself does not belong at a gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains” said Paul Edelman, the Deputy Director of Natural Resources and Planning at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, about the destruction that would come so that a huge parking structure could be built into the hillside. 

It’s a first for the Valley: carving out part of the hillside to insert a concrete, multi-level parking structure. The possible precedent of hacking into the environment like this may concern residents from Sherman Oaks to Toluca Lake, and environmentalists everywhere. Their hillsides could be the next to be paved over. 

The Harvard-Westlake School wants to displace 137,000 cubic yards of earth to make way for their parking lot project. That’s 9 percent of the amount of soil displaced to create the Getty Center and, proportionately within the context of the site, just as large a relational displacement of earth. The structure’s mass will intrude with less grace than the Getty Center does, and would exist only to provide space for 750 more cars, not art, and with no public benefit. 

The installation, that some say is better suited for the Grove or a Galleria-type shopping mall, will have the height-scape equivalent of an eight story building comprised of the parking structure, topped by an athletic field, and crowned by a strong lighting system. The height from street level to light bulbs will be 80 feet. 

Many are asking is this really needed, and is it good for the environment? It’s why environmentalists like Citizens for LA Wildlife, the Sierra Club of LA, the Hillside Federation, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, homeowners groups like  the Studio City Residents Association, the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and activists like Save Coldwater Canyon are opposing what they call an “unnecessary and destructive project” by Harvard-Westlake School. 

“So many people are opposed because of the environmental impact. There’s no public benefit, just a benefit to a private school” explains Sarah Boyd, a Studio City resident and the President of Save Coldwater Canyon, which is an all-volunteer neighborhood group trying to make canyon living better. 

Lining up against this community opposition are the Harvard-Westlake administration, and many of the wealthy parents that pay nearly a quarter-million dollars in tuition for each child to matriculate from 7th to 12th grade. They count on the school to get their kids into the best colleges possible, and may not want to rock the boat and jeopardize that hope by opposing the project. And, the school has a strong and wealthy alumni association. 

The school’s social media platforms for outreach include twelve different Facebook accounts, from the general school and alumni pages to more granular levels like water polo enthusiasts, Korean-Americans, and LGBTQ alumni. In addition to Facebook, they also have Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram. Generations of graduates are well placed in business and society throughout Los Angeles, and they are being asked by the school for support of the project. 

The Harvard-Westlake juggernaut will be a hard one to fight, but the opponents to the parking structure project are passionate because they live in the affected community, unlike the alumni, administrators and parents that support the project. It’s David and Goliath-like, with widespread community engagement against one big, rich stakeholder—the school—with a lot of alumni and parents that live everywhere in Los Angeles except near this project. It’s the community that will live with this impact. 

The opponents are challenging the Draft Environmental Impact report, and public hearings are now being held. There is a chance for both sides to try to negotiate a solution that satisfies the community and the school. Something between cancellation of the project and a dramatically downsized and relocated version. As the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s Edelman points out, “Alternative projects to locate the proposed parking structure within existing parking areas were not adequately explored.” 

And, what about the Harvard-Westlake students? Where do they fit into this brewing conversation, and what do they think? Will Harvard-Westlake be a community citizen and create a learning opportunity for their students to become sensitized to the environment they are part of ? An environment that they and eventually their children will steward? 

The 1,600 member student body is teenagers, on their way to roles and responsibilities they earn or will inherit. Stewarding the environment is a good life lesson for them, a group that for whom much is given by the circumstances of their very birth and education much should be expected. A course in Environmental Stewardship 101, using this project, may help prepare them for the sorts of unique challenges their faculty, and possibly their parents, may not expose them to. It would also be an acknowledgement by Harvard-Westlake that the environment matters. That it’s not a modest concern, but a global issue that school trustees could take a position on and make Harvard-Westlake a leader in an era of heightened environmental awareness. 

Proactively, Philip Holthouse, Chair of the school’s Board of Directors, could encourage the board to direct the school administration to create the Environmental Stewardship 101 program for students, so they can watch this project unfold, and live and learn as the parking lot project moves forward through the community and political process, giving them a life lesson in how to balance private and public needs as well as a sensitivity for the environment that they will one day be responsible for stewarding. 

Neither school President Rick Commons, nor Board Chair Philip Holthouse would respond to written requests from CityWatch for comment about the excavation and building project. A call to Ann-Marie Whitman, identified as the school’s media contact, went unanswered. 

Nearly fifty years ago, in her environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi”, Joni Mitchell  reminded us what happens when we don’t watch out: “…you don't know what you've got till it's gone--they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. 

NEED TO KNOW 

There will be a public hearing on Tuesday, August 8 at 9:00am, at the Van Nuys City Hall, located at 14410 Sylvan Street, Room 201 Van Nuys, CA 91401, when a Hearing Officer, on behalf of the City Planning Commission, will listen to all sides.

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.)

-cw

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