Pomona Clears Legal Hurdles for Art Museum, Can Begin Construction

Renwick House sits on the wheeled platform used to move it across College Ave. to its new location on Wig Beach in June. (Marc Rod • The Student Life)

Pomona College recently overcame its last hurdle to starting construction of its new, larger art museum west of College Avenue.

The Claremont City Council reached a settlement Tuesday with two groups of residents who had filed suits against the proposal and its impact on the landscape of College Avenue.

A group called Citizens to Save College Avenue sued the city of Claremont over the project’s Environmental Impact Report, arguing it did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. The case was dismissed this February, but Citizens to Save College Avenue appealed the decision in May, the first business day after the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building, museum director Kathleen Howe said.

Another group of Claremont residents, Claremonters for Honest Governance, filed a complaint against the City of Claremont and the Claremont City Council alleging malpractice on the city's part when evaluating objections to the plan and accusing city officials of colluding with Pomona’s legal team, according to the Claremont Courier.

While Pomona was not named as a defendant in this complaint, it was identified as a "real party of interest."

Pomona’s museum project has been immersed in legal battles since the college requested that the city rezone the selected site for the museum in early 2016.

In last week’s global settlement, Citizens to Save College Avenue and Claremonters for Honest Governance agreed to drop their complaints entirely and to not disrupt museum planning and construction moving forward.

In exchange, the college has made some changes to the plans for the museum to make it more accessible to the Claremont community, restrict parking, and soften its aesthetic impact, Howe said.

“We’re excited to get started and build a great museum that’s going to have wonderful opportunities for both student engagement and community engagement,” Howe said.

The city will review its environmental and heritage protection policies and may create a historic district on College Avenue to protect its Victorian architecture, she added. Howe is relieved the project is now on track.

“It was a long process to gain approval for the museum we designed to be perfect for the college and the community,” she said.

The controversial location of the new museum west of College Ave was intended to create a bridge between the college and the Claremont community, Howe added.

“It’s a place where town and gown meet, so we very specifically wanted to use that block as a connector between the college and the city,” she said.

Mary Stoddard, the leader of Citizens to Save College Avenue and whose family has a long history with Pomona, said some Claremonters did not see the location of the museum on College Avenue as a “gift” to the community.

“Personally, I would have liked some things to be more specific,” said Stoddard. “In the end, it’s the real world and we’re all learning to live and work together.”

Some Claremonters saw the development on College Avenue as a case of “college creep” – an invasive expansion of the Claremont Colleges into the Village.  

“We didn’t think of this as college creep,”  Howe said. “We think of the museum as a new public amenity to the connections between [the college] and Claremont.”

Howe said the suits were motivated by unrealistic aesthetic preferences from a small number of Claremont residents.

“They wanted a structure that looked like the Victorian houses on College Avenue, which is not exactly compatible with a museum that shows contemporary art,” she said.

Howe added that the views of the organizations protesting the new museum were not representative of Claremont’s residents.

“In a sense, these lawsuits have made it seem like there was a united community front against the museum, and that is far from true,” she said. “This really was a couple of small, vocal, funded groups.”

Legally, the path is clear for the construction of the museum, but the project continues to draw criticism, including from within the Pomona community.

TSL published a letter to the editor by Ronald Lee Fleming PO ’63 the day after the settlement was reached, calling for a new, larger project for the museum including a dining room and a cinema. Fleming offered a $5 million donation for such an alternative museum project.

Howe said she had spoken with Fleming about his ideas for the museum, as have Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr, former President David Oxtoby, and several members of the board of trustees.

“Ultimately, we didn’t convince him and he didn’t convince us,” she said.

Howe criticized Fleming’s proposal as an elitist view on museums.  

“We want a museum that is transparent, open to the community, students and faculty, welcoming and not a space that imposes a kind of elitist idea that you need to have a certain social standing to be interested in museum programs,” she said. “That is exactly not what we’re about.”

As Pomona resumes the project after the extended pause, the facilities team will meet this week with city planners to discuss the practicalities of the construction, according to Howe.

Construction will start mid-November, and Howe estimated the new museum will open in spring of 2020.

“Then we move 14,000 objects from here to there, open the galleries and have a great opening,” she said.