Muslim college in Berkeley buys hilltop campus that once belonged to Lutherans

One of the old mansions at 2770 Marin Ave. that is part of Zaytuna College’s new campus. Photo: Top of Marin Stewardship

Zaytuna College, America’s first accredited Muslim institution of higher learning, has purchased the 10-acre hillside property at the top of Marin Avenue that was occupied by Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary for 65 years.

Zaytuna, which opened its doors in a rented facility in 2009 with just 11 students, has expanded rapidly since then and the recent purchase means it has space to start a graduate degree program.

Zaytuna currently has 51 undergraduate students spread out among three buildings it owns on Holy Hill, just north of the UC Berkeley campus, according to Amna Mirza, the head of marketing. Zaytuna plans to move its undergraduate program up on the hill by early 2018, she said. That will free up a space for graduate students at the buildings on Holy Hill, she said.

While Mirza did not know the price tag for the property, Pacific Lutheran had put it on the market for $10 million. The property has two mansions built in the 1920s and 1930s, which have gorgeous gardens, dormitories, some other buildings, and views of Tilden Park, San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.


The garden at the mansion known as Nash Home at 2770 Marin Ave. Photo: Top of Marin Stewardship
The garden at the mansion known as Nash Home at 2770 Marin Ave. Photo: Top of Marin Stewardship

The sale reflects recent changes for Pacific Lutheran as well. The school, which was founded in 1952 and was of the founding institutions of the Graduate Theological Seminary, merged in 2014 with California Lutheran University, based in Thousand Oaks. Now it is one of seven seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Pacific Lutheran decided to sell its long-time campus and move to the Center Street building that also houses Berkeley City College. The idea was to bring students closer to the community in which it worked, according to a press release.

When California Lutheran University announced that it wanted to sell 2770 Marin Ave. and put the proceeds into its endowment, neighbors grew alarmed. They had come to appreciate and enjoy the wooded campus with its spectacular views and many took to walking frequently through the grounds.

Neighbors feared that California Lutheran would sell the land to a developer who would tear down the distinctive mansions and build something less attractive that spread out across most of the land, according to Mardi Sicular-Mertens, who helped form the group, Top of Marin Stewardship. The group aimed to “preserve the seminary’s historic and cultural value, public access to open space, wildlife habitat and natural beauty.” The group tried, unsuccessfully, to get the space landmarked.

But Sicular-Mertens and members of Top of Marin Stewardship are delighted that Zaytuna College has purchased the land since it means the space won’t be developed. Neighbors hope to retain access to the property as well and are in discussions with Zaytuna.

“We got what we wanted,” she said. “We are thrilled.”

In a Sept. 22 press release announcing the sale, the president of Cal Lutheran, who had been criticized by some of the neighbors for putting profit ahead of open space, spoke to the neighborhood concerns.

“We are delighted that the property is going to another nonprofit, faith-based educational institution,” said Cal Lutheran President Chris Kimball. “We are also pleased that Zaytuna is committed to preserving the campus and its buildings as neighbors had wanted.”

Part of the 6.6-acre parcel at 2770 Marin Ave. just purchased by Zaytuna College. Photo: Top of Marin Stewardship

The president of Zaytuna also expressed similar sentiments in the release.

“We are humbled and honored by this beautiful display of interreligious cooperation,” said Zaytuna President Hamza Yusuf. “The Lutheran community built and maintained this lovely campus, and has seen fit to entrust us with its next chapter, and we intend not to disappoint them. We will honor the intentions of its founders, whose expressions of love and excellence in service of the sacred remain manifest across the campus. We hope for a continued cooperation with all the great schools on Holy Hill, with special affection for our Lutheran brothers and sisters after this sincere and heartfelt demonstration of trust and solidarity.”

Zaytuna, which is a liberal arts college, hopes to eventually become part of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of 19 seminaries and research centers in partnership with the University of California at Berkeley.