UCLA, heirs wrangle over fate of a tranquil Japanese garden

Half a century ago, the man who built the Broadway department store chain and his wife gave to UCLA their house and the Japanese garden that spilled down the hillside below it near the Hotel Bel-Air. The UC regents, UCLA’s governing body, promised to maintain the garden forever.

Sounds simple enough, but for three years the university and the donors’ heirs have wrangled over the fate of the garden, which experts consider to be one of the finest examples in North America of a landscaping style meant to inspire Zen-like tranquillity.

Decades ago, UCLA opened the garden to visitors on a limited basis, and thousands made the necessary reservations to stroll the steep pathways. In May 2011, the university closed the property to the public and months later announced plans to auction the two acres containing the benefactors’ Georgian Colonial house on Siena Way and the garden on Bellagio Road.

The heirs successfully sued to temporarily halt the sale and now seek to permanently prevent the regents from destroying the garden or selling it without conditions that would guarantee its preservation.

Despite four mediation sessions, the most recent in November, the two sides have failed to come to terms. But, with the case expected to go to trial this summer in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Santa Monica, some of those involved say the family members and the university could yet resolve their differences.

“A settlement is always on the table,” said Craig de Recat, an attorney for the Regents of the University of California, which owns UCLA and pays its bills.

Walter W. Moore, an attorney for the heirs, agrees that a settlement is possible. He added that the university runs the risk of alienating potential contributors by reneging on a written promise.

“Who’s going to keep contributing to higher education,” he said, “if you’re worried that when you’re six feet under the promise will be broken?”

Indeed, the situation is a reminder that universities must tread carefully, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropy at Indiana University.

“There are limited circumstances under which universities can transfer gifts without discouraging future donations,” he said. “There is an integrity issue.”

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UCLA, heirs wrangle over fate of a tranquil Japanese garden
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