Billionaire Wants to Build Think Tank in High-Risk Fire Zone

Nicolas Berggruen’s plan for a Berggruen Institute in Brentwood raises safety questions

By Sam Catanzaro

Opponents of a proposal to construct a campus for a think tank in the Santa Monica Mountains argue it would establish a dangerous precedent for commercial development in a high-risk fire zone. Backers, however, contend the campus is more environmentally friendly than many large mansions that may otherwise be constructed.

Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen wants to open the Berggruen Institute campus on 450 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains zoned for 28-single family homes, agreeing to keep around 95 percent of the land as open space while adding new public hiking trails.

The proposed development includes a one-story, 109,880-square- foot main structure along with 21,000 square feet of residential space with 15 units for scholars and visitors. The low structure would wrap around a central courtyard with a 250-seat circular lecture hall that would dramatically rise 45 feet above the surrounding building. Three pavilions equaling 30,000 square feet are proposed as well.

The development must first clear a multi-year environmental review process that recently begun and residents of the nearby Mountaingate Open Space Management Association are asking city officials to reject the Berggruen Institute’s application. At the Brentwood Community Council meeting Wednesday, November 13 representatives from the association argued that the institution should not be described as an educational institute. Under city coding, such educational developments have less restrictive zoning regulations. In addition, residents worry the institute will create more traffic.

According to Steve Soboroff, a Berggruen Institute LA Committee member and senior project advisor “The Berggruen Institute will be — first and foremost — a campus for scholarly study,” in a statement to City News Service.

The development’s critics also argue that the recent Getty Fire should be a warning to community leaders of the hazards of developing in a high-risk fire area.

Soboroff to this end said that former Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Bill Bamattre has been appointed by the institute to come up with a fire safety plan to improve current safety conditions.

The Berggruen Institute was founded in 2010 and is dedicated to “engaging great thinkers to develop and promote long-term answers to the biggest challenges of the 21st century,” and works to reform California’s state and local government while focusing on issues such as climate change and economic inequality.

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