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
The person most responsible for Belmont’s downfall is a 61-year-old researcher for Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, the masterful David Koff, who was recently profiled in the L.A. Times as “The Bolshevik Who Beat Belmont.” Koff originally wanted only for the district to choose a different developer. His union was embroiled in a dispute with the Kajima Corporation because the Japan-based company holds a controlling ownership interest in downtown’s New Otani Hotel, which virulently opposes the unionization of its workers. Koff eventually took on the whole notion of building a school there at all.Koff: No more “head down and charge.”
Though the merits of the Belmont project were dubious from the start, the Bury Belmonters have scripted the classic Pyrrhic victory: They will have killed Belmont at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons, and they will have done more harm than good.
The Basic Question: Is It Safe?
It is a different Los Angeles, unrecognizable. Oil derricks overwhelm a grassy hillside. A cow looks out, in seeming protest, at the pug Eiffel Towers as they march across the landscape.
The vista in this photo, reproduced on the cover, is Belmont, circa 1890. But it could just as easily be the next hill over, or the next over that — where the old Belmont High now sits. It was the same scene in the Wilshire district, near MacArthur Park.
Much of L.A. has been built on old oil fields, including about a dozen schools. At the Belmont site, which became a residential area with the decline of its oil reserves, soil testing and analysis found just about what was expected — potentially dangerous oil byproducts typical of oil fields, namely, widespread methane, which is explosive, and spot concentrations underground of hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. As oil fields go, Belmont may be worse than average. “I wouldn’t have selected the site,” testified district safety consultant Angelo Bellomo in a May 21, 1999, legislative hearing.
The state’s Division of Oil and Gas recommends against building directly over oil wells — because there’s always the potential for a gas leak — but it doesn’t take a position regarding building on oil fields. The department also capitalizes on new projects, such as Belmont, by having contractors plug or “abandon” old wells to modern safety specifications.
About a third of the 35-acre Belmont site overlaps the approximate boundary of the Los Angeles City Oil Field, which stretches across nearly 800 acres. At the urging of the Division of Oil and Gas, architects placed the school buildings away from the portion of the site where the most oil drilling had occurred.
The question, however, remains: Do safety issues preclude finishing a desperately needed school in which taxpayers have invested some $200 million?
To answer that question, L.A. Unified, in November 1998, assigned a specially assembled “Safety Team” to review the project, which was already under construction. Its members and consultants quickly concluded that the Belmont site had never undergone a complete environmental review. This analysis was endorsed by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. The Safety Team later decided that safety measures planned for the site were insufficient, which is a subject of both debate and litigation.
District officials responded to the concerns, and by May 24, 2000, they had already spent $8.38 million on Belmont-related environmental work, tests and inspections. (Incredibly, May 2000 is the most recent accounting the district could provide in response to a public-records request.)
“Based on the information that we have seen to date, we are confident that there is a fix that can be put in place,” said Safety Team member Bellomo in his 1999 testimony. Bellomo has since become director of the school system’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, giving him a prominent role in determining Belmont’s future. In his official capacity, he remains noncommittal. But in 1999, he estimated the cost of a safety system at “somewhere between $2 [million] or $3 million to maybe $9 [million] or $10 million.”
Nothing much has changed on the scientific front since Bellomo’s May 1999 testimony, although the cost of a Belmont safety system could torpedo hopes of finishing the project.
But it shouldn’t, according to a September 1999 memo prepared by the district’s Independant Analysis Unit. This review estimated that finishing Belmont would cost $74 million less than replacing it. “We believe it would be significantly less expensive to complete and open the Belmont Learning Center (assuming it can be certified to be safe) than to abandon the school and build an equivalent school at another site (assuming an alternate site and the resources to develop it can be found),” noted the memo. This analysis presumes that the 35 acres of Belmont could be replaced with a single school on an environmentally clean site. The district has been unable to obtain such a location in the downtown area.
So why is the name Belmont more poisonous than the gases in its soil?
The Ultimate Opponent
Union researcher David Koff drives an old Volvo station wagon, sports a 16-inch ponytail and lives in Mount Washington. And if he’s not on your side in policy dispute, be afraid, be very afraid. If Koff had been in charge of the Gore recount effort, Gore would have somehow carried the day. Maybe not right away. Maybe it would be two years into the Bush presidency, and maybe Naderites would be forced to recant or burn, but victory would have been Al’s. Koff is that good — and that persistent.