Is This Any Place for a School? | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Is This Any Place for a School? 

Yes. It's time to finish the Belmont Learning Complex

Wednesday, May 2 2001
Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Belmont Learning Complex has become this city’s ultimate monument to civic dysfunction. The $200 million high school, the state’s largest and most expensive, sits half-finished on a corner at the northwest edge of downtown, mockingly visible, for all freeway commuters to see. Nothing is happening at the site, even though the Los Angeles Unified School District desperately needs classroom space.

Belmont — and how things came to this — presents a latter-day parallel to some of the city’s most defining and ill-fated projects: the entombing of the L.A. River in the name of flood control, the theft of water from the Owens Valley to spur a development explosion, the roughshod expulsion of Latino families from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium, and the supplanting of the Red Car trolleys by freeways, buses and SUVs. These earlier events, however, for all their psychic and physical scars, embodied at least some civic recompense, even as they shaped the enigmatic identity of the Los Angeles that came to be.

Not so with Belmont.

If the school board were forced to vote today, the half-finished school would probably be torn down, with the land sold on the cheap to a developer who would gleefully build on the very spot the school system now finds so objectionable. The school district would lose all or most of its investment, and another generation of students — mostly working-class Latinos — would miss their best chance to avoid overcrowded campuses, long bus rides or both. And the city would still need schools, and the school district would still attempt to build them, and somehow pay for them.

Conventional wisdom asserts that the Belmont project collapsed because consultants and district staff pushed L.A. Unified to build on oil-field property that is too contaminated, too toxic, too dangerous for a school. And yes, oil-field contamination is part of the story. It’s also true that the judgment of the original project advocates was itself contaminated — by overreaching good intentions in some cases, by ambition or greed in others. But the project’s greatest hurdles have always been political, not environmental.

The path to resolution, however, is stunningly simple — if the school board can look at this morass with fresh eyes and summon even a smidgen of courage.

A Weekly investigation — including interviews with experts and a review of reams of documents — inescapably suggests that the school should be completed — even though the site is flawed and the project itself even more so. Though the environmental challenges are real, they are not considered insurmountable by engineers who design safety systems. It is a case where science and rationality have proceeded in one direction, while political aims, media coverage and public perception have gone another way.

Romer: ”Wait a minute. This can be solved.”

Current schools Superintendent Roy Romer, the former two-term Colorado governor, may have enough political moxie to push Belmont through. At his urging, the school district last month formally requested contractors to submit bids and plans for completing the suspended project. Proposals are due in mid-July. And Romer has to be encouraged by the fact that, during the current election cycle, one candidate after another, both for local and statewide offices, expressed support for finishing Belmont. The major exceptions so far have been members of the school board, who hold the only votes that count.

“I know there’s a lot of history that preceded me, and I need to be respectful of this board,” said Romer. “My approach is ‘Get the facts on the table, and let the facts drive the solution.’ My gut tells me the school should be finished. We have modern technology that can prevent any exposure to explosive or dangerous gas. It’s been done all over this town, and we can do it here.”

Looking back, the environmental furor that halted the project was not, in fact, over a life-threatening hazard, but arose from an alleged lack of testing of the construction site. Nothing in the subsequent testing has demonstrated that the site is unbuildable — except in the eyes of a handful of critics. And while most of the naysayers are acting in good faith, it’s often difficult to separate their stand on Belmont from political and personal motivations that lead them to grasp at any reason to oppose the project. In particular, these critics have had to buttress their claims about safety risks by relying heavily on a self-trained oil-field expert whose unsubstantiated theories about the site’s dangers have been treated as gospel.

Belmont was brought down by a combination of sheer happenstance and political calculation worthy of a pulp novella, featuring a cast that includes an energetic, idealistic, angry former schoolteacher, an assemblyman out to make a name for himself, a lawyer who wanted to be district attorney, and Mayor Richard Riordan, who didn’t really oppose Belmont at all, but found it a useful campaign issue to exploit. The media also played a role, the L.A. Weekly early on, then the Daily News — which made anti-Belmont stories part of its crusade to break up both the school district and the city — and, finally, the L.A. Times, which was in search of a scoop.

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