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Land Deal Yields
No Land, No Deal 

Planning czar Shambra’s biggest deal never happened

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Until recent weeks, the talk had long percolated in the backrooms of the L.A. school district. A land swap involving the Air Force was to trigger a make-over of the central office that could trigger hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and private development. Instead, as district officials disclosed last week, the deal amounted to a big zero, leaving behind nothing but finger pointing in one of the strangest flops to emerge from the district’s now disbanded Planning and Development Office.

The plan was to swap some scenic but underused acreage in San Pedro for a prime downtown parcel that could become, among other possibilities, a new, gleaming, high-rise headquarters for the 700,000-student school system. Then, the district’s old, expansive headquarters, atop a hill overlooking the civic center, could be developed for profit, or possibly sold to the archdiocese, which is building a grand, regional cathedral nearby.

The entire scenario was to be stage-managed by Dominic Shambra, then the director of the planning office on the 11th floor of the IBM building downtown. Shambra, an elementary school principal turned real estate wheeler-dealer, had assembled a team of high-priced consultants to push through experimental projects touted for their ability to bring in revenue to a school system that is always seeking more funding.

The entire episode has been portrayed as something of a farce — opportunity slipped away while school officials were occupied elsewhere. But the fiasco also fits a pattern established by Shambra and his staff, who for close to a decade operated as a largely autonomous unit, pursuing projects that proved costly distractions from the mission of building and operating effective schools, something the district has enough trouble doing already. In the end, as with ventures at the Ambassador Hotel and other locations, tens of thousands of dollars and untold staff time went down the tubes.

Like other district development efforts, the land-swap tale is framed by controversy over the Belmont Learning Complex, which will go down as Shambra’s legacy, and California’s most expensive high school. Although more than 5,000 downtown students will get badly needed classroom space, the $200-million-plus undertaking has shed many of the features that its developers first promoted, while the costs have more than doubled.

The land-swap deal got far less attention, conducted for the most part outside of public view. At its heart was the push to keep open the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo. Much of the base’s annual budget of $5 billion goes to defense contractors with plants in the vicinity. The base was a possible target for closure, in large measure, said military officials, because its personnel could not find decent, affordable housing in the South Bay.

The school district entered the picture because it owned prime real estate on the hills of San Pedro. The federal government originally deeded the land, some 55 acres, to L.A. Unified for a high school, but school administrators concluded the location was too remote. The land has since been used for a continuation school and storage. The acreage would be worth a fortune if it were ever developed privately, but the district had no plans to do so, and would have encountered stiff community opposition if it had.

Citing public interest, the Air Force requested a long-term lease on the land, but Shambra, acting on the district’s behalf, demanded compensation in return, and Governor Pete Wilson’s office and L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley helped broker a deal, late in 1992, in which the state, as well as the city and county of Los Angeles, would provide a parcel of equal value.

Early on, Shambra and his team began to favor the property now occupied by the state office building at 107 S. Broadway, a stone’s throw from City Hall. This choice proved problematic: The building remains occupied by state workers until they can move to offices elsewhere, and the old structure is filled with asbestos and lead paint that must be removed prior to demolition.

Although the project disappeared from the press and public radar screen, it began to prompt vigorous fighting behind the scenes, particularly as contentiousness over the Belmont complex escalated.

Board member David Tokofsky — a Belmont critic — became incensed over the dearth of information available about the land swap. Behind closed doors, he accused staff members of selecting a site without informing the board of all its options. Board members, he said, not staff, should make the call on a potentially momentous proposal.

Indeed, the land swap was envisioned as triggering some high-stakes dominoes. Shambra, who liked to think big, talked of building a high-rise on the site, with the potential to house the entire school-district central administration. That, in turn, would make the current headquarters available for private development — which could generate millions of dollars. As Shambra’s star rose, his office collected more authority and operated with less direct oversight. The land swap could have been his biggest plum, it seemed, were it not for the storm clouds gathering around his stewardship of Belmont.

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