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
Koff’s initial target was not Belmont, but the Kajima Corporation, because it is the major shareholder in an anti-union downtown hotel. The Koff strategy was simple: Pressure Kajima to bring the hotel in line by making the company’s life difficult elsewhere.
To this end, Koff had a scattershot approach. He would throw out any number of reasons for opposing Kajima and later, by extension, the Belmont Learning Complex project. He pursued whatever and whoever got traction.
District officials were among the first audiences for his Kajima dossier, replete with company sins here and abroad. But the school-board majority was uninterested. As long as Kajima could deliver a school and a deal, nothing else mattered. And when evidence called the deal into question, that didn’t matter either.
Koff also turned to the media, but for more than two years only the L.A. Weeklywas interested. In the latter part of 1995, I sleuthed around with Koff. The result was a 4,000-word piece in December 1995 that examined the dubious deal making and conflicts of interest among the developers and consultants. The article utterly failed to note environmental problems. Those were not on my radar screen.
Still, there was ample justification to oppose what was taking shape. I rolled out critical stories, one after another, with considerable help from Koff. For starters, the cost at Belmont ballooned to double its original estimate. The project itself was a needlessly risky combination of a school combined with housing and a shopping center. This shopping center was embedded into the base of a concrete podium. Above the retail space was parking, and above that were classroom buildings. Creating this podium increased construction costs by about $7 million.
The year 1995, when L.A. Unified entered exclusive negotiations with the favored developer, would have been a propitious time to call things off. Or in 1996, before architects and developers fees were set in place by contract. Or even as late as mid-1997, when the district signed a construction agreement and broke ground. But a district team headed by Planning and Development director Dominic Shambra seemed to have all the strategic answers. Most important, they maintained a thin but steadfast four-member majority on the seven-person school board.
The closest call was in February 1997, the weekend before the school board was set to approve the final construction contract. In the days leading up to the scheduled vote, L.A. played host to a gathering of the AFL-CIO’s executive committee. Union activists took advantage of the occasion to engineer public demonstrations at the New Otani Hotel, as well as behind-the-scenes arm twisting on Belmont: That week, labor leaders sent a clear but secret message to the Board of Education, one that has not been previously disclosed. Reconsider the Belmont contract with Kajima, they said, or risk losing labor’s support for Proposition BB, the school district’s upcoming bond issue.
Former school-board member Mark Slavkin recalls one meeting in particular that included himself, a state labor leader, a national labor leader and former Assemblyman Richard Katz (who was chairing the campaign to pass the bond measure).
“They were pulling out all the stops,” said Slavkin. “My immediate response was, ‘Oppose the bond if you want to oppose the bond. Do what you need to do.’ But the board did have discussions [about how] any action on Belmont would just rile everybody up. And that we couldn’t pass the bond issue if it were linked to Belmont.”
Belmont project manager Shambra (who has since retired) remembers unexpected talk about postponing the final vote on Belmont during emergency weekend meetings with consulting attorney David Cartwright and three pro-Belmont board members: Victoria Castro, Jeff Horton and, by conference phone, Slavkin. (Superintendent Sidney Thompson was out of town for the weekend, but later joined the strategizing.)
“Dave Cartwright was warning them that this was tantamount to extortion and told us not to do it,” said Shambra, in a recent interview. “But Horton and Slavkin said, ‘No, it’s politics,’ and that they couldn’t afford to lose the bond issue.”
An earlier try for school bonds had fallen just short of the required two-thirds majority, so district officials didn’t want to go up against the County Federation of Labor, L.A.’s most potent political force. The Belmont bloc blinked, directing Superintendent Thompson to pull Belmont from the agenda. Little explanation was offered publicly, except to note that the package was not ready for board approval. It was a masterstroke of union solidarity for Koff, all the more so because Koff kept it out of the press. (This was one scoop he kept to himself and also one for which he shuns credit.)
Koff’s triumph, however, was short-lived. When the bond issue passed in April 1997, the school-board majority wasted no time bringing Belmont to a vote — and board members also made it clear they intended to use bond proceeds to pay part of the tab.
Two years later, construction was proceeding at full speed. The project still had powerful opponents, but how exactly do you stop the building of a school in midstream, when all the contractors, contracts and fees are legally locked in? The answer would soon become clear: by calling the project unsafe. And Shambra’s crew played right into David Koff’s hands.