Pepperdine cultivates strong relationships with local Malibu community

Sarah Fischbach, Malibu Country Estates resident, points to the view of Pepperdine University from her backyard (Photo by Katie Weselak).

Pristine beaches, breathtaking views and million-dollar mansions.

Malibu is not a typical college town: The land of the rich and famous is also the home of Pepperdine students and faculty. 

Pepperdine has fostered a close relationship with the local Malibu community, specifically the nearby Malibu Country Estates. The university supports mutually beneficial relationships between students and local residents and provides service opportunities for students to get involved in the local community. 

Pepperdine has an especially close connection with the Malibu Country Estates neighborhood and frequently works with the Homeowners Association to make decisions about construction projects on campus.

“Pepperdine is the neighborhood to the Malibu Country Estates,” said Sarah Fischbach, an integrated marketing communication professor who lives in housing adjacent to John Tyler Drive. “Our communities are built around our neighborhoods.”

The university considers many factors, such as noise and light pollution as well as neighborhood concerns, as it seeks to act as a good neighbor to the local Malibu community. 

Neighborhood impact

Malibu Country Estates is the closest neighborhood to Pepperdine and consists of 100 homes.

Some residents have a direct view of Pepperdine’s campus and most are a quick walk away from accessing campus amenities and attending events. 

This close proximity isn’t without its drawbacks. Ongoing construction on campus is loud and can be heard from the homes directly adjacent to John Tyler Drive.

Construction in progress along John Tyler Drive to replace the Stotsenberg Track parking lot (Photo by Katie Weselak).

“Construction wise, they’re ever developing,” Fischbach said. “Like this parking garage is about ready to be done, you can see the crane that’s going up right now and the trucks that go on John Tyler Road.”

Fischbach said the general consensus among her neighbors is that they want to be welcomed into Pepperdine and specifically invited to events.

“It can be as simple as a lunch in Alumni Park,” Fischbach said.

Pepperdine officials plan to start new construction in 2024 to build The Mountain. The Mountain is a new student recreation and event center, estimated to cost $250 million, Ashley Mowreader wrote in a March 2021 Pepperdine Graphic article. The Mountain will replace the existing Rho parking lot.

Digital projection of the Mountain (Photo from Pepperdine University YouTube video: “The Mountain at Mullin Park Fly-Through Tour”).

Despite the construction noise that can be heard from her backyard, Fischbach conveyed her gratitude for having Pepperdine students as neighbors. 

“All the Pepperdine students are so good, you could be backed up to a university that could be really bad,” Fischbach said. “There could be beer cans in our backyard and stuff like that but Pepperdine students aren’t doing those things.”

Helmut Meissner, the president of the Malibu Country Estates Homeowners Association, echoed Fischbach’s sentiments, remarking on the long-standing relationship between the neighborhood and Pepperdine.

“Our HOA has, in fact, a very open and constructive relationship with the university, which goes back almost 50 years,” Meissner wrote in an email. 

He declined to give an interview, stating the HOA wishes to leave matters to individual residents rather than speaking for them.

Pepperdine efforts to be good neighbors 

Richard Eldridge, the assistant vice president for Government and Regulatory Affairs, wrote that the university has a long-standing relationship with the HOA.

“The university regularly meets with community representatives to discuss upcoming construction projects,” Eldridge wrote. 

He was unable to give an interview but responded to questions via email.

Pepperdine administrators provided an overview of the construction project to community representatives and discussed questions and comments with homeowners in advance, Eldridge wrote.

“Specifically related to the parking project near the baseball field, the University met with homeowners and association representatives and shared the project plan with these groups prior to finalizing the design,” Eldridge wrote. “Based on feedback received, we made hundreds of thousands of dollars in changes to the project design, including reducing the number of parking spots and associated dirt movement, to ensure their considerations were addressed in the design.”

The university is taking measures to mitigate noise exposure to neighboring communities by limiting construction to certain hours and placing sea containers along John Tyler Drive.

The homeowners’ association board reached an agreement with the university to support the parking construction project by the baseball field in hearings with Los Angeles County and the California Coastal Commission as a result of these discussions and modifications, Eldridge wrote.

“While we have a legal responsibility to meet these conditions, we also do it in fulfillment of our moral obligation to be a good neighbor,” Eldridge wrote.

In addition to temporary construction measures, the university has a longstanding agreement to close a portion of the road along John Tyler Drive at nighttime despite the inconvenience. 

“This was a compromise the University reluctantly agreed to with the neighboring community, in an effort to be a good neighbor, understanding our construction impacts and other noise,” Eldridge wrote.

Malibu community connections 

Pepperdine officials have strengthened their connections with the greater Malibu community through organizations such as the Crest Associates.

The Crest Associates are local donors who financially support Pepperdine and pay a yearly membership fee to have access to the library, theatre and athletics facilities. 

Heidi Bernard, the executive director of the Crest Associates Program, said she could not disclose the exact amount of this fee, which is not publicly listed on the Crest Associate web pages. 

Being physically present on campus allows Crest Associates to become part of the Pepperdine community, Bernard said. She organizes events for associates to support students and various programs.

“Over the year we’ve had events that have centered around athletic events and our theatre events,” Bernard said. “We’ll have a little food, then we go watch a basketball game or a volleyball game, or have a dinner and then we go to a student show or a play.”

Crest Associates also become part of the community by getting to know students and forming close, long-lasting relationships. 

Students greatly benefit from mentorship opportunities by local professionals who find it rewarding to give their expertise. 

“It is so rewarding as a professional person to be able to mentor our young students and get to know them, to see what’s going on in their lives,” Bernard said. “Many of my board members and community friends still stay in touch with these students who are now alumni, who have gone on with their lives and families and careers.”

The Crest Associate Board, a subset of the greater Crest Associates program which coordinates with President Jim Gash and other administrators, works with the student Pepperdine Ambassadors Council on various volunteer opportunities and events. 

The Pepperdine Ambassadors Council is a group of undergraduate students who strive to build a bridge between Pepperdine and the surrounding Malibu community, according to the council’s website.

The Crest Associate Board shares information about volunteer opportunities with the community, Bernard said.

In addition, many Crest Associates have connected with the Ambassador Council to get involved with local groups such as the Veterans Day committee and Malibu Chamber of Commerce. 

Bernard said she encourages all students to meet and get involved with members of the community. 

“Take advantage of those opportunities,” Bernard said. “Just look around you and meet the community.” 

Town-gown relations

Balancing the needs of college students and nearby residents can be a tricky road. 

The positive relationship between Pepperdine students and Malibu communities is a rare outlier when it comes to town-gown relations.

Town-gown relations, referring to relations between university students and local residents, are often fraught with tension in college towns across California.

Local residents in Berkeley, California, have sued the University of California, Berkeley, for increasing campus enrollment and aggravating the existing housing shortage. 

The lawsuit cited the university’s failure to adequately mitigate the environmental impacts of increasing enrollment, Michelle Liu and Katerina Barton wrote in a March 2022 The Takeaway article.

Unlike other college towns, Pepperdine has been a willing partner in city-wide efforts, such as  Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti’s Dark Sky Ordinance.

“We didn’t have to do much to educate Pepperdine,” Grisanti said. “Pepperdine is full of very bright people who immediately grasped the concept and talked about making the changes.”

The Dark Sky Ordinance is meant to reduce light pollution to protect Malibu’s wildlife, habitats and quality of life, according to the Malibu City website.

To reduce light pollution, the city instructed residents and businesses to change their outdoor lighting to comply with Dark Sky Ordinance regulations. 

Light pollution, the excessive or inappropriate use of outdoor artificial light, is affecting human health and wildlife behavior, according to a July 2022 National Geographic article.

The university began replacing lights in 2015, with 110 of the 367 substituted, Ali Levens wrote in a March 2021 Pepperdine Graphic article

The few old lights remaining on campus are the clear globes with bright lights inside. These fixtures release more light into the sky than onto the ground. The new Dark Sky compliant lights located outside the Firestone Fieldhouse and Mullin Town Square are shielded at the top so that light is directed down.

Dark Sky Ordinance compliant lights in front of Firestone Fieldhouse on campus (Photo by Katie Weselak).

Grisanti also described the steps Pepperdine is taking to reduce its impact on nearby residents.

“I know Pepperdine puts a lot of effort into making sure that what goes on on the campus doesn’t influence the people surrounding it,” Grisanti said. “Part of the reason they’re building the Mountain is to get the athletic events further away from the neighborhood and provide a less impactful place for events to occur.”

Grisanti has been a member of the Crest Associates Board for 15 years and spoke favorably about the student body.

“You’re wonderful people, you’re doing the right things with your lives,” Grisanti said. “You’re trying to make the world a better place and you give us all hope for the future.”

Community involvement through service 

The Hub for Spiritual Life has many opportunities for students to become involved in Malibu, both with the Malibu Community Labor Exchange, which helps day laborers find work, as well as the 5Journeys farm, which focuses on farming and conservation efforts. 

Service opportunities are important because they allow students to give back to nearby communities.

The Hub also offers opportunities in surrounding areas, such as around Topanga Canyon and in the greater Los Angeles area. The Hub has worked with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the PATH organization to create hygiene kits for those who are unhoused, and many others.

“There’s a lot of different opportunities and ways to get involved in community service if you just look,” said Diamond Longs, an administrative assistant in the Hub’s Community Engagement and Service division. “We have a lot of opportunities weekly as well for people to sign up.”

Longs said she encourages students to sign up for upcoming service projects. 

“I think that serving puts you in a different space when you help others,” Longs said. “It feels good to serve and to put others first.”

Pepperdine students feel similarly. Junior psychology major Kim Yee emphasized the importance of community service and wants more students to get involved. 

“Personally, I think that it should be a graduation requirement for students to volunteer and get involved,” Yee said. “Maybe doing beach cleanups or volunteering in any way you can.”

Katie Weselak completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.