Kravis Center Project Mired by Lawsuit
By: John-Clark Levin and Charles Johnson
Posted: 11/2/08The entire community of Claremont McKenna College learned this past summer of a $75 million gift from the The Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Foundation that would be used for the construction of a state-of-the-art facility on the west side of campus, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Rafael Viñoly. Named in honor of the principal donor, the Kravis Center would boast 100,000 square feet of space, divided between classrooms, faculty offices, underground parking and the Office of Admission and Financial Aid. In addition, it was designed to accommodate five of CMC's ten research institutes.
Sketches displayed on the website of Viñoly's firm show a thoroughly modern design, with covered porticos and tree-lined terraces which the college plans to use for informal gatherings. The entire building will be designed as a sort of grand gate, its courtyard forming the end of the broad avenue that runs through the heart of campus, connecting Bauer Center to Honnold-Mudd Library. President Gann stated in CMC's initial press release that "[t]he new building reflects the College's ongoing commitment to environmentally responsible, sustainable design, and will be certified at LEED Silver designation or higher."
LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an initiative by the U.S. Green Building Council to promote innovation and advancement in sustainable building practices. Proposed buildings are scored on a 69-point checklist. Points can accrue in such categories as "Brownfield Redevelopment," "Landscape & Exterior Design to Reduce Heat Islands," and the installation of "Alternative Fuel Refueling Stations." The Kravis Center was indeed certified as a LEED Silver/Gold facility, and thus will incorporate between 33 and 51 of these environmentally progressive innovations.
In addition to LEED certification, the project was also required to be compliant with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. This law requires that before certain types of construction may be undertaken, documentation must be submitted outlining the potential environmental impact of the project. When CEQA was passed in 1970, it only applied to public projects, such as highways, reservoirs, and development by local government. Two years later, however, the California Supreme Court's ruling in Friends of Mammoth v. Board of Supervisors of Mono County widened the applicability to extend to almost all projects in the state.
Therefore, pursuant to current CEQA protocol, a Claremont-appointed Lead Agency prepared a document called a Mitigated Negative Declaration. In essence, this document cited findings of an initial study which determined that although the Kravis Center project entailed potential environmental impact, special steps had been taken to mitigate that impact so that it was not significant. The City of Claremont accepted this as sufficiently convincing evidence that all impact was mitigated and it allowed work to begin. If the initial study had found significant unmitigated impacts, however, CEQA would have mandated a much lengthier and more expensive document called an Environmental Impact Report.
It is here that the Kravis Center project hit a snag. At the end of July, a neighborhood group called Protect Our Neighborhoods filed a lawsuit trying to force the City of Claremont to block construction until a full Environmental Impact Report has been completed. Composed primarily of residents of the Arbol Verde neighborhood just off campus, Protect Our Neighborhoods alleges in the suit that without an Environmental Impact Report, the consequences of the project could not be adequately known.
The Kravis Center, they feel, could negatively affect many of the environmental factors protected by CEQA. They worry that lowered air quality, noise pollution, light pollution and increased traffic could all result from the project. Whether the Mitigated Negative Declaration was enough to establish that there would not be significant impact hinges on the exact meaning of some of the CEQA's text. According to CEQA § 21002.1, "Each public agency shall mitigate or avoid the significant effects on the environment of projects that it carries out or approves whenever it is feasible to do so." According to the suit, in accepting the less extensive report, the city inadequately mitigates or avoids potential environmental impact upon residents of Arbol Verde.
The group is represented by Temecula attorney Raymond Johnson of the law firm Johnson & Sedlak. Johnson has come under criticism over the past decade for what some see as a pattern of frivolous litigation. By 2006, an article ran in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin detailing his lawsuits, which tend to target construction projects based on CEQA. Municipal governments around the region have faced Johnson's lawsuits, including Apple Valley, Victorville, Beaumont, Hemet, Palm Springs, Temecula, Murrieta, and Riverside - more than two hundred total suits. To that list one can now add Claremont.
The CI attempted to contact Johnson in person to understand what he believes is incomplete about the Mitigated Negative Declaration or unconvincing about the LEED Silver/Gold certification. His office, however, did not return repeated phone calls.
Suffice to say, Johnson's suit has mired the whole project. With legal action hanging over its head, the City of Claremont has not issued the demolition permit required to tear down Pitzer Hall, where the new Kravis Center will be constructed. If the case goes to trial and the court finds in favor of Protect our Neighborhoods, the construction would be delayed by a further year to eighteen months while the Environmental Impact Report was being prepared at an expense of some tens of thousands of dollars. Given the high stakes, there is now a strong incentive for the college to settle with the plaintiffs. Matt Bibbens, CMC's Registered In-House Counsel, declined to comment to the CI for this article, citing ongoing confidential settlement discussions, giving credence to the view that the CMC may be nearing an out-of-court settlement.
If no such settlement can be reached, there will be a hearing on October 27 in Norwalk Superior Court. The Contra Costa Times quotes Johnson as suggesting that a trial date would likely be set at the hearing. A trial would delay the project further, even if Claremont ultimately wins the case. In that time, many professors and offices of the college would continue to occupy the cluster of temporary modular buildings referred to by some students as "Gannville." More importantly, every day of delay and legal wrangling is a day when Mr. Kravis' generous gift cannot benefit the students at Claremont McKenna and the rest of the Consortium.
For now, we can only hope that from behind closed doors the settlement negotiations are successful. Only then can Pitzer Hall be torn down; only then can the two busy years of construction begin in earnest.
John-Clark Levin is a freshman at CMC and a staff writer for the CI. Charles Johnson is a sophomore at CMC and an assistant editor of the CI.
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