SAVING PIERCE COLLEGE; CAMPUS AIMS TO BOOST IMAGE, GAIN REVENUE WITH PROJECTS.
The remaking of sleepy Pierce College into a gleaming center of culture and commerce is under way in the West Valley, part of a plan to raise the campus' profile and earn money.
College President E. Bing Inocencio made it clear when he assumed control of the campus in June 1996 that retooling its aging buildings and curriculum was a top priority.
And accordingly, he has moved forward quickly to court developers, even as a campus committee works to figure out exactly what development would complement Pierce's educational needs.
The chance to build on one of the largest undeveloped parcels in the Valley has drawn much interest.
``Once the word got out that we were serious about (developing the farm), then they knew we would be open to anything that would be promising for the college,'' Inocencio said.
Developers on Tuesday will submit proposals for converting the Pierce farm into a golf course or another money-making venture.
Other developers have even more pitches. An industry group has proposed building a biotech center at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue. Entertainment studios might be a good fit, industry experts said. A California State University, Northridge, committee studied whether to renovate Pierce's football stadium to accommodate its Matadors and Pierce events.
TDM Architects of Los Angeles, the firm hired by the college to craft its first facilities master plan, delivered a draft in January. But work on a final plan is on hold. The college's planning committee decided that the school should first update its 1993 academic plan, then decide what buildings it needs. The academic committee is still meeting to shape a plan.
Implementing the ideas in these kind of master plans can take five to 20 years, said Diran Depanian, a principal in the architecture firm.
All this action is fueled by intersecting economic dynamics.
Pierce's 377.5-acre campus is one of the largest parcels of developable land left in the Valley, though anything proposed for the campus must benefit the school's academic programs.
The college was one of eight Los Angeles Community College District campuses that ended last school year with a deficit. Pierce's long-term debt reached $6 million, before it was forgiven by the district. Pierce cut 20 percent of its course sections, laid off clerks and trimmed services such as library hours.
Pierce and the other district campuses this year were given autonomy to begin acting on their own to make more money and draw more students.
Development of the campus is pitting traditionalists who want to save the farm and its open space against those who think the school must remake itself or die.
``It's more of a desperation. Right now morale is really low,'' said Martin Mota, chairman of the Pierce College Council, a group of administrators, faculty, staff and students who make policy recommendations for the campus.
``The college is falling apart, there is no other way to generate money.''
Starting on the farm
After years of talk about the future of the farm, the Pierce College Council in April voted unanimously to accept proposals for an 18-hole golf course and modernized agricultural center. The college district approved, and 30 developers responded. The college's request for proposals calls for projects that maintain open space, offer academic tie-ins, generate $800,000 a year in lease fees to the college and improve Pierce's agricultural department.
Inocencio said with extra revenues Pierce could create new programs in mortuary science, culinary arts and bolster existing science programs.
``We can really dream up what used to be fantasies,'' he said.
Experts estimate the value of the farm's 240 undeveloped acres at $250 million.
``It's probably one of the largest in the Valley,'' said Tom Festa, a broker with Grubb & Ellis Co.'s San Fernando Valley office.
Growing companies see the college's proximity to the office parks in Warner Center as particularly tantalizing.
A biotech park could generate $1.6 million a year for the college and offer jobs and internships for students, said Ahmed Enany, executive director of the downtown-based Southern California Biomedical Council. The council was behind the development of MiniMed's biotech center at CSUN this year.
``Pierce was in my mind for quite some time because I know they have a lot of land,'' Enany said.
``When you visit there is a lot of space there that is basically underutilized.''
There's also been a buzz of interest from the entertainment industry.
``What would be attractive to the industry is a piece of land that has enough size to build a few state-of-the-art sound studios,'' said Michael Bobenko of Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a consortium based in Hollywood.
Spreading the word
Inocencio likes to remind people he took the helm at Pierce to lead the college into the new millennium and turn it into a world-class community college - and ``not to preside over a park,'' he said.
He also likes to remind that the surge of interest didn't happen overnight.
``I've always wanted to do more, but I was told you can't do this and that. I finally got the Pierce College Council to at least get an RFP,'' Inocencio said, referring to the request for proposals.
``Some people say it's really progress because they hadn't been able to do it before.''
Last week, a small group of students called Save the Students rallied in front of the campus, calling for Pierce to move forward and develop its open space. But they face plenty of opposition.
A loyal core of Pierce farm supporters who consider the open space a sacred natural preserve are fighting to save the land where the college was founded some 50 years ago.
``I refer to Pierce as the jewel of the Valley. It's the last open space there is,'' said Ron Wechsler, director of Pierce's equine program and a teacher there for 22 years.
Wechsler, like many others, remains skeptical over how much money Pierce will really gain and how much will revert to the college district.
``I don't know what makes them think the money is going to stay at Pierce College,'' he said.
``I think they should look carefully at selling it down the river.''
Drawing: (1 -- 4) Pierce College's Land of Plenty
Officials are fielding proposals to develop all corners of Pierce College, even though the school's master plan process is on hold. Since no official drawings are on the books yet, the Daily News took these proposals and created our own idea of how they might look.
1. The college is proceeding with plans to convert its 240-acre farm into a commercial venture that would raise at least $800,000 a year while upgrading academic programs. One developer envisions a commercial farm, but most propose an 18-hole public golf course.
2. An industry trade group is floating a proposal to put biotech offices, labs and classrooms on vacant parking lots. The proposal hasn't passed the concept stage, but it is backed by the same group that landed MiniMed's new facilities at California State University, Northridge.
3. CSUN planners considered renovating Pierce's football stadium into a 15,000-seat venue that could accommodate Northridge's Matadors. University administrators want to build at Northridge instead, but no official decision has been made.
Jon Gerung/Daily News