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Playa Capital also has issues on the table with the school district, namely, the matter of 2,300 to 5,000 school-age children who would live in a built-out Playa Vista (which anticipates up to 25,000 residents).
Playa Capital has offered a single four-acre site for an elementary school, a deal the school district approved in 1995. That agreement was negotiated by special-projects director Dominic Shambra, who later became widely known as the maestro of the suspended Belmont Learning Complex project.
In 1995, the school district had not yet passed a bond issue, no state construction funds were forthcoming, and, in those days, the city, in its bid to spur commercial development, was more competitor than friend when it came to snaring school sites. So to Shambra, a gift of four acres -- when the possible alternative was nothing -- looked appealing. Contacted this week, Shambra -- who is now retired -- said he also had an informal understanding that negotiations could be reopened if more school space was needed, though L.A. Unified might have to purchase the additional land.
That’s not the understanding of Playa Capital management, which has changed since 1995. To Playa Capital, the deal begins and ends with the one site. In which case the developers may be getting off easy -- especially since Playa Capital could seek to be compensated for the value of the surrendered land.
From the mayor‘s perspective, however, Playa Capital, which donated $1,500 to the Coalition for Kids in 2000 and $5,000 in 1999, is a model corporate citizen. Playa Capital even merited a seat on last month’s “Education Express,” the media bus tour that Riordan used to tout his mayoral legacy. The developer was especially prominent that day because Riordan sees corporate participation as vital in school reform, and he was delighted to provide free commercials in exchange.
And why not? In the last three years, the Playa Vista Educational Trust has donated a total of $108,000 to 12 L.A. Unified schools it has “adopted,” awarded 432 high-achieving students with a $2,000 savings bond and distributed $72,000 in grants to teachers for school projects. Playa Capital is a “wonderful company,” Riordan told the busload of reporters.
Support from the mayor has been crucial to Playa Vista. The city has approved $135 million in taxpayer-guaranteed bonds as well as other entitlements, not to mention allowing Phase 1 of the project to go forward. The second phase is still under environmental review, for which Playa Capital needs continued political good will. Not content to rely on good will alone, Playa Capital regularly ranks among the most prolific city local lobbyists according to the city Ethics Commission. It also has contributed to the campaign and office-holder accounts of various local politicians.
Besides Playa Capital itself, a roster of Playa Vista‘s affiliated developers and investors have donated to the coalition, including Gary Winnick of Global Crossing and Pacific Capital ($50,000); other Global Crossing executives ($26,000); Howard Marks of Oak Tree Capital ($20,000); and Robert Maguire of Maguire Partners ($10,000).
This confluence of money, of course, doesn’t negate all charitable motives. Winnick and his wife, for example, spread their philanthropy widely. Last year, they donated $1 million for a project that pairs aspiring teachers with second-graders in need of tutoring. And Karen Winnick, who writes children‘s books, gave $30,000 toward establishing a library at an Eastside school for troubled teenage girls.
In the developer-friendly 1950s, builders who created communities such as Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks left -- or had to leave -- space for schools. The schools they left behind were generally six- and seven-acre sites, which almost assuredly accounted for all the neighborhood students. In 1968 -- the most recent update -- the city reaffirmed this principle, stating in planning documents, that communities with 15,000 to 30,000 residents should have their own high school. And each section of 5,000 to 10,000 residents should have its own neighborhood elementary school. The plan acknowledged that this goal would be hard to achieve in areas already built out.
Playa Vista is the city’s only development site that‘s analogous to the tracts of the 1950s, in which subdivisions filled expanses of farmland or open space. Everywhere else the district needs to put schools is built out, contaminated or otherwise problematic. If Playa Vista can’t be done right -- with new schools built right into the neighborhood where they‘d be needed -- where indeed can the school district hope to meet its challenge?
But land at Playa is a valuable commodity: After all, an assortment of million-dollar homes would fit into an area the size of a school playground.
The alternative to providing schools within the development would be assigning students to nearby schools, which are currently less crowded than in other parts of the school system, but well beyond reasonable walking distance. The geographic hurdles also include major highways, bluffs and a marina. In addition, to create the required classroom space at these existing schools, L.A. Unified would have to add portable buildings. That’s precisely the solution envisioned in Playa Vista‘s Environment Impact Report. Problem is, the school district is trying to undo the results of this coping strategy in other parts of town, where students are bused in. At downtown and Eastside campuses, the district has slapped down portable classrooms on what used to be playground space andor switched to year-round schedules that shorten each instructional year by about a month. No campus in the Playa Vista environs runs year-round yet, but most have numerous portable classrooms already.