By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Shambra, as well as a chief lieutenant, consulting attorney David W. Cartwright, insisted that the prison site was never viable anyway, because of lead contamination in the soil. But critics suggest there may have been more at play in the surrendering of this vacant and available site. It turns out that the city and City Councilman Richard Alatorre, whose district included the prison site, had designs on this property as a target for development. And last spring, the city and the Clinton administration announced a deal in which the feds would help clean up the property as a contribution toward spurring local commerce.
The school district formally renounced its interest in the prison site in December 1996. About the same time, Alatorre eased away from his pointed criticism of the Belmont project. Shambra, in an interview this week, insisted there was no quid pro quo linking the status of the prison site to Alatorre’s position on Belmont.
"I had a conversation with Alatorre afterthe release of the prison site," Shambra said in an interview. "He asked me what was going on with it, and I said, ‘We already released it.’" Shambra dismissed Alatorre’s apparent shift of gears on Belmont, characterizing Alatorre’s early criticism as a bone he had to throw to his union supporters. "Alatorre had to cover his bases."
Neither Alatorre nor his staff returned calls for comment.
By late 1997, two versions of the land swap were emerging in the hallway gossip of district insiders. Shambra and supporters viewed the arrangement as a strategic triumph. His critics, including investigators dispatched by Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale), viewed the swap as evidence of questionable back-door dealing, typical of Shambra and his projects, that was likely to leave the district as the loser.
The Air Force, it turns out, abandoned the idea of building on the San Pedro property some time ago. Base officials set the date of their change of heart as February 1997, when they formalized an agreement to build elsewhere. But press accounts from January 1996 — three years ago — note that the Air Force had already applied to take over the White Point naval housing project, which would render the L.A. Unified lease obsolete.
These events were well-documented in the media. At one point the Air Force held a press conference regarding its plans. Public officials took an active role in the negotiations, including Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich and Representative Jane Harman (D-Torrance). One public hearing was held at White Point Elementary School, an L.A. Unified campus.
The Air Force, however, never contacted L.A. Unified to cancel its $5-a-year lease, because it had no intention of doing so until its housing was about 60 percent complete at the other site — which hasn’t happened yet. Retaining the option of building on the school-district land gave the military a cudgel to beat back potential community opposition to its White Point project until well past the point of no return.
The school district, said Cartwright, remained in the dark till sometime in October, when state officials informed him that they had just discovered the Air Force’s revised strategy. Evidently, no one had been tracking the military’s moves — not Shambra (who retired a year ago), and not his development consultant Wayne Wedin, who was billing time at $125 an hour for asset planning until his contract was canceled in late 1997. Also notably out of the loop were Cartwright — who was still brokering with the state over terms of the land swap — and school-board member George Kiriyama, who represents the San Pedro area.
For now, all the district gets for its efforts is a chance to distribute blame. Last week, board member Valerie Fields seemed to be looking in the direction of staff or Shambra’s consulting team for responsibility. Shambra did not hesitate to finger Tokofsky, asserting that he had made staff too gun-shy to exercise initiative. He also faulted the school board for waiting too long to select a site. The district would have its land if it had moved faster, he insisted.
Tokofsky sees it differently: "There’s no excuse for dropping the ball here. I think they were juggling too many special operations without the school board being very cognizant of what was happening."
For his part, Cartwright said it’s not clear that any move would have made a difference. The state, he noted, could make a case for exiting any land swap that didn’t include the Air Force. He added, "The Air Force simply never told us. If I had seen this, I would have done something. I don’t know what I would have done, but I wouldn’t have let this drag on for so long."Research assistance by Aaron M. Fontana.