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Proposed Visitor Center for Santa Monica Mountains Takes a Big Step

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The largest urban national park is partly within Los Angeles, yet so many don't know it. Perhaps one of the reasons can be blamed on where the National Park Service set up its visitor center and headquarters 11 years ago this week: in Thousand Oaks. Take a look at the over 153,000 acres that make up the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which basically spans the range from Runyon Canyon in Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, and you'll see that the suburban Conejo Valley floor is not ideal.

Now a 5-year-old land acquisition near Calabasas is eyed as the new visitor center, which would collaboratively be operated with three other open space and parks agencies. Unlike its current location across from a strip mall, the envisioned center would be embedded within the mountains--"the geographic heart," touts planning documents--at King Gilette Ranch along Mulholland Highway.

A works in progress for a couple years now, planning for the property took a major step last week when the environmental assessment document was released for public review and comment. It describes potential impacts on a variety of environmental conditions, including natural and cultural resources, visitor experience, accessibility, traffic, aesthetics, and several other topics by examining two options: no action and the preferred alternative of making the center. Finding no significant repercussions, the nearly 200-page analysis should push the project into reality.

Originally a Chumash Indian village, the 588-acre plot of land saw California history through the era of missions, Spanish land grants and the Homestead Act. In 1926, King Camp Gillette,the razor baron, bought the property and commissioned California’s Golden Age architect Wallace Neff to design and build several buildings. After Gillette's death and misfortune in the depression, his wife sold the property in 1935 to Clarence Brown, a MGM film director who held A-List Hollywood parties there. Brown also hired Neff to design changes to the residence, also adding a swimming pool, tennis court and airstrip.

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In 1952, the famed Bob Hope and his wife Delores bought the property, immediately turning it over to the Claretian Order of the Catholic Church, which operated a seminary on the grounds until it was sold in 1978 to Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who made it home for her new age Church Universal and Triumphant. By 1986, it was sold to the Buddhist-oriented liberal arts college, Soka University, before it was put up for sale as the school moved to a new campus in Orange County.

Under the plan, a 6,000 square foot stable will become the new Anthony C. Beilenson Visitor Center, named after the congressman who wrote the legislation that created the national recreation area in 1978. Inside will be a Visitor Center desk and orientation space, interpretive sales area, audio-visual alcove, interpretive exhibits, and three small offices. Additionally, a restroom and multi-purpose visitor building will be built, essentially creating a visitor services plaza space. The entry gate would be widened and 50 new parking spaces would be created. The goal is to build a “net-zero” facility, meaning it would produce all its own energy needed during the course of a year.

Back in Thousand Oaks, a new UCLA conservation science center will slowly take over the current National Park Service building. "It will be a place where scientists study how the interactions between humans and nature affects the ecosystem," explained the Ventura County News last week. "They will examine everything from exotic plants and endangered species to habitat fragmentation and climate change."

The Santa Monica Mountains is one of the world's last remaining examples of a Mediterranean ecosystem. From mountain lions to horned lizards, the range is home to 450 vertebrate animal species and 1,200 vascular plant species, with 33 of the animals and plants on federal and state-listed threatened and endangered lists. Also found are over 1,000 archeological sites in addition to culturally and historically significant structures, like those found at Paramount--as in the movie studio--and Gillette ranches.

The proposed center would be co-operated with California State Parks, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

The public comment period will be open through March 15, 2010. To review the documents, go to, where comments may be left.

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