What’ll it be?
A quick look at the fates of California’s other developmental centers
By Tracy Salcedo
The Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) holds a special place in the minds of residents of Sonoma Valley. We like to think it is unique — extraordinary —because of its legacy of caring, its iconic architecture, and its pivotal role in the community as an employer and institution. It’s not. As far as the state of California is concerned, the SDC is just another DC to shut down and dispose of, part of a decades-long movement away from institutionalizing the developmentally disabled in favor of embedding them in community homes. But the Eldridge site does have some exceptional features compared with other developmental centers. A wildlife corridor runs through it, and its future will be shaped by a much-touted, neverbeen- done-before, communitydriven specific planning process.
How will this process change what ultimately happens to the SDC? It’s impossible to know, but one way to consider both the process and the outcome is to take a look at what happened to the other developmental centers after their closures. This summary of DC fates is quick and dirty, and begs for a deeper dive, not just down the proverbial rabbit hole, but into the warrens of an informational prairie dog town. Still, and even if only superficially, the stories illuminate what SDC’s next iteration could look like.
The Lanterman Act
Closure of all of California’s developmental centers emanates from what’s commonly called the Lanterman Act, legislation dating back to the 1960s (and revised over the years) that essentially ended the “involuntary detention of all but the most gravely mentally ill.” The bill and its amendments remain controversial: Critics charge that the act has caused an increase in homelessness and jeopardized the well-being of former clients; proponents maintain it has integrated the developmentally disabled more deeply into local communities and reduced the costs of care. Regardless of the pros and cons, closures of the centers have profoundly impacted the developmentally disabled and their families.
The closures have also had profound impacts on the communities that surround them. Large tracts of land and expansive campuses, many with historic status, have essentially “gone on the market” as real estate transactions for California’s Department of General Services (DGS), the state’s self-proclaimed “business manager.” Protocol dictates DGS first offer these properties to other state entities, such as universities. If such a transfer is not forthcoming, the property is put up for sale, with the goal of making the best deal possible.
Let Them Be Universities
Stockton Developmental Center was the first institution west of the Mississippi to care for people with mental disabilities. Originally known as the Insane Asylum of California, the institution opened in 1853 to treat victims of gold rush fever, which literally drove people crazy. It occupied 102 acres of land donated by the founder of the city of Stockton, Capt. Charles Weber, and housed 5,000 people at its peak. The center closed in February 1996.
While no mention of a “specific plan” crops up in newspaper accounts of the closure, the local community was invited to participate in determining the institution’s future use. An advisory committee, formed by local elected officials, was charged with considering the options, and repurposing the site as a university campus floated to the top. Fiscal viability was an issue; addressing the proposed use, Gov. Gray Davis reportedly said, “I have no intention of investing taxpayer dollars in an economic proposal that does not pencil out.” In the end, however, the university idea added up, and the site became a regional educational center encompassing satellites of California State University (CSU), San Joaquin Delta Community College and University of the Pacific.
Camarillo State Hospital and Developmental Center followed Stockton’s lead down the university path — but not before logging a singular legacy. Originally occupying 1,500 acres in Ventura County, Camarillo opened in 1936, and at its height was home to more than 7,000 people — “alcoholics, pedophiles, and people with mental illness, retardation and violent propensities,” according to one newspaper account. That same report also documents the hospital’s visual appeal; scenes for movies, television shows, and commercials were shot on the site, and rumor has it Camarillo was the inspiration for the Eagles’ iconic hit song, “Hotel California.”
The hospital closed in 1997 and was temporarily What will it be? – from page 5
maintained in “warm shutdown,” but its reincarnation was in the works. Gov. Pete Wilson had appointed a task force to study the site’s reuse in 1996, and its top recommendation was conversion into a public university. The property was conveyed to the CSU system in 1998, becoming the CSU Channel Islands.
Lanterman Developmental Center, originally called the Pacific Colony and State Narcotics Hospital, was established in 1927 as an asylum for the “feeble-minded,” an echo of SDC, which was incorporated as the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. Lanterman closed in 2014, was transferred to CalPoly Pomona in 2016, and is currently part of a master planning process that envisions both new construction and repurposing older, historic buildings on the site. “This effort is to revitalize the approximately 300-acre site into a thriving and active live, learn, work and play community,” reads a recent university press release, echoing language being used in the specific planning process underway for the SDC.
Let Them Be … Something Else
Mendocino State Hospital, decommissioned by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972, was originally the Mendocino State Asylum for the Insane. Established in 1889 in Talmage, outside Ukiah, on nearly 500 acres, thousands of residents lived and died on the site. Another echo of SDC: A Ukiah Daily Journal article notes nearly 2,000 souls from the hospital were interred in unmarked graves at Russian River Cemetery, about the same number buried in the Eldridge Cemetery.
But Mendocino’s reincarnation did not involve a university. In 1974, the site was purchased by Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, which reinvented the hospital as the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. According to the history posted on the City’s website, a lack of water was among the issues that prompted the state to sell the property, and also stymied the initial purchaser, a “wealthy man” who’d hoped to make more money off the property and failed. After building a coalition of investors, the Buddhist association purchased the site, which now houses a monastic community dedicated to “dissemination of the Buddhadharma in the West.”
DeWitt State Hospital, located in Placer County, was originally a general hospital operated by the military, and became home to “both mentally ill and mentally deficient patients” in 1947, housing overflow from other state hospitals. In 1972, with the promise the site would continue to be used for “public purposes,” it was transferred to Placer County and repurposed as the DeWitt Government Center. A master plan re-envisioning the campus was approved in 2019, and redevelopment is ongoing — and controversial. A legal petition challenging the redevelopment plans was filed in 2019, according to Gold Country Media, and demolition on the site was allowed to proceed only after the challenge was rejected by Placer County’s Superior Court.
The Money Maker
Agnews Developmental Center, located in San Jose, is the only former DC whose disposition has made money for the state of California, according to a report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). The 324-acre West Campus, “sold mainly to private entities” (with one lease), brought in $250 million, and the 424-acre East Campus, “sold to a combination of private entities and local government,” generated revenues of $120 million.
Of all the DCs listed in this article, Agnews resonates most profoundly with those embedded in the Eldridge story; it comes up in conversation over and over. Originally the California Hospital for the Chronic Insane, the institution opened in 1888 to ease overcrowding at the asylums in Stockton and Napa. The original buildings on the West Campus, like those in Eldridge, suffered significant damage in the 1906 earthquake, and reconstruction took place on the separate campuses. Also like its Eldridge counterpart, its ultimate disposition fired the surrounding community’s grassroots.
The Agnews campuses were shuttered separately, beginning with the West Campus in the late 1990s, and the East Campus about a decade later. Given their prime locations in Silicon Valley, the sites immediately attracted the attention of tech companies looking to expand their corporate footprints in a crowded urban landscape. There was pushback from other stakeholders: “Intense community interest in the future of the site made decisions about the development of the land a challenge,” notes the National Park Service in its description of the historic West Campus.
In the end, the West Campus was sold to Sun Microsystems (now Oracle), which was charged with preserving some of the historic buildings and landscaping on the site even as it redeveloped the rest to house its research and development programs. Another parcel was sold to Cisco Systems; more land went to a consortium of developers who built the Rivermark residential and commercial project, and the Santa Clara Unified School District plans to build an elementary/ middle/high school campus on 55 acres. The cemetery was deeded to the city of Santa Clara. And local activists lobbied to preserve 40 acres of the former campus as open natural space. Now Ulistac Natural Area, the park is dedicated to native plants and wildlife that, according to the website, “is the only dedicated natural open space in the City of Santa Clara.”
What’ll It Be?
Three developmental centers await final disposition: Sonoma, Fairview (in Costa Mesa, Orange County), and Porterville (in Porterville, Tulare County). As the fate of the SDC plays out, no doubt the communities in Costa Mesa and Porterville will be watching. What will it be? A school? A Buddhist monastery? Civic center? Tech center? What will happen to the cemetery? The open space? It’s a warren in the making, with a future that will reverberate no matter what form it takes.
Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning writer who lives and works in Glen Ellen.
“I have no intention of investing taxpayer dollars in an economic proposal that does not pencil out.” Then-Governor Gray Davis reportedly said regarding future use of the Stockton Developmental Center after its closure in 1996. The Stockton Developmental Center opened in 1853 to treat victims of “gold fever.”