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The Belmont Decision 

School board should wait for more studies before ruling on bungled project

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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Debra Dipaolo

For critics of the scandal-plagued Belmont Learning Complex — the nation’s most expensive high school project — the school board’s upcoming vote has been a long time coming. For the first time, a majority of board members are on the verge of killing the project, which sits half-finished on contaminated land at the west rim of downtown. The anti-Belmont board majority could vote to end this long-playing disaster as soon as early next month.

But as tempting as that must be, school-district officials run the risk of repeating history rather than learning from it. If the momentum for a quick resolution should hold — which almost certainly means abandoning the project — board members might as well be voting in the dark. Without the results of studies now under way, they will be just as uninformed on crucial details as their pro-Belmont predecessors were when they started this runaway train.

For one thing, neither district officials nor hired experts have yet determined whether the Belmont complex, which sits atop a shallow oil field, can be made safe from toxic hydrogen sulfide and explosive methane gases. Nor do they know how much a state-of-the-art safety system would cost. Furthermore, no solid alternatives to the Belmont school — which is badly needed to reduce overcrowding — have been proposed. Nor have any options been fully explored for disposing of the site should a school be built elsewhere.

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A little patience could yield the answer on safety issues, because detailed seismic work is under way. This strategic pause could then be used to create real alternatives, if necessary, to Belmont — something district staff has never accomplished before, despite all the warning signs.

This much is clear: The school district has sunk at least $170 million into Belmont and will spend millions more here regardless of whether a school ever opens or not. But if it doesn’t open, the school district will have nothing to show for its investment. And that sobering outcome is nothing to dash toward, even in the view of one of the project’s most persistent and outspoken opponents, school-board member David Tokofsky.

"The constant rush ends up being fool-hearted, because different sources of information that are crucial to the health and safety of the students are still coming in," said Tokofsky. "It’s like trying to understand the Kennedy assassination without the Zapruder film."

The momentum pushing a decision on Belmont comes largely from the school board itself. This board, which just dumped a popular superintendent, clearly has the moxie to scrap Belmont. And some motivation as well. In the spring elections, the three successful board challengers used Belmont as a mantra in delineating the ills of L.A. Unified, and now it’s in their hands to do something about it — especially because three of the four remaining incumbent board members also never favored Belmont.

The groundwork for the possible slaying of Belmont was laid in July, when the board, following the advice of environmental consultant Barry Groveman, appointed an independent commission to conduct a fast-track evaluation of the project. During the review, the board ordered a slowdown of construction. Although the commissioners unanimously agreed that the Belmont site should never have been selected for a school, they divided on what to do this deep into the escapade. Ultimately, the commission, by a 4-3 tally, favored finishing the project, although its own executive director vocally joined the dissenting minority. This close call is reflected in the report itself, which was released this week. In it, commissioners make at least as good a case for ditching Belmont as for going forward.

The effect of the split decision is to leave the fate of Belmont to the leanings of individual school-board members. The commission report will provide reasonable justification — and political cover — for either a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Certainly, the critics have compelling arguments in hand. For one thing, it’s conceivable that state regulations would bar the district from ever opening this school, based on a possible classification of the acreage as a hazardous-waste site. For another, the cost of a safety system could be prohibitive. And experts made it clear to the commission that the risks at Belmont can only be managed, never cured, because the shallow oil field will always be a source of dangerous gases.

"It’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that this site can never be made safe enough to reach prudent standards of health and safety for students and teachers," said David Koff, a union researcher who has coordinated a long campaign against the project’s anti-union developer, the Kajima Corporation. Koff added sardonically: "What a wonderful opportunity this is to be on the cutting edge of oil-field-mitigation technology. This is definitely where every school district that considers itself progressive should be: Let’s use our kids as guinea pigs in a never-ending experiment."

Given a tight time frame, commissioners had no hope of resolving such matters, but school-board members do. Consultants have already begun detailed seismic mapping that will indicate what safety systems, if any, could be effective and relatively affordable. This work is being supervised by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and will take up to six months to complete. During that time, the school system could seek legal clarification regarding operating a school above a shallow oil field. In other words, there’s no need for board members to make a Go/No Go decision in the dark.

"It makes a lot of sense to wait until the feasibility study is completed," said Hamid Saebfar, a senior administrator with the state toxics agency. "Once you have the study, that will give you enough information about what are the viable ways to remedy the site and what are the costs associated with this. We think there are engineering ways to deal with this."

If the site proves unmanageable or illegal, ending the project will be an easy call. But that would still leave the district short a school it desperately needs. It’s almost boilerplate by now to note that several thousand Belmont-area students are bused out of their neighborhoods every day because of an acute classroom shortage. Thousands of others are crammed into the existing Belmont High, a substandard, overcrowded rat-trap.

There is no easy escape from the school system’s Belmont binge. Former district planning director Dominic Shambra and a team of consultants saw to that when they crafted a complex development deal that was supposed to result in the district’s largest high school, as well as affordable housing, retail shops and a community center — features that have since fallen by the wayside. As he rammed through design approvals, Shambra would silence critics by arguing that everything was preliminary and that the school board could always disembark if problems arose. Then, later, he changed gears, jettisoning other concerns by suddenly asserting that it was too late to derail the project without disastrous legal, logistical and financial consequences.

These days, all options look pretty bleak.

To date, the school district has spent about $170 million on Belmont. Finishing the construction work will cost another $55 million to $60 million, according to the estimate of Edwin Weyrauch, the school district’s recently appointed Belmont project director. That does not include some $14 million in additional claims sought by the developer, nor the cost of a system to make the school safe from the harmful oil-field gases that will migrate skyward for all eternity from under the school. That safety system could cost $10 million to $20 million to install; maintaining it could run another $300,000 to $500,000 per year. All told, the final cost of the 3,600-seat school could exceed $300 million, or some $85,000 per classroom seat.

That first $170 million is gone, gone, gone — no matter what happens from here on out. So the real question is: Could L.A. Unified do better than spending upward of $100 million to finish this school? The answer is: No one knows yet. This is not to say that the answer isn’t knowable.

The person charged with nailing down the details is real estate attorney Howard Miller, a former school board member who was recently given the charge of re-fashioning the district’s school-construction operation. Tokofsky — and other board members — want to see options other than Belmont fully costed-out, with a solid timetable for completion. Miller has a few months to work this out, provided that a board majority has the fortitude to wait for the results.

Project director Weyrauch can’t imagine shelving a school that is so near to completion. "The quality of construction is excellent," he said. "All the land surrounding the site is developed. The conditions here are somewhat characteristic of the L.A. basin. When I read about poisons and explosives, I would like to see that quantified and compared to other properties. Or to the fumes given off by the sewer system, or by the vehicles operating in the area. Those are the logical questions I would like to see the press ask, rather than just saying, ‘This site is explosive and the center of the toxic universe’ — which I don’t think it is."

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