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Belmont Reincarnated 

Abandoned school project gets unlikely new life

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
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A year ago, the half-finished and abandoned Belmont Learning Complex was as dead as dead gets: School-board President Caprice Young said she wouldn‘t send her child or anyone else’s to that school. Another board member said she was up to her hips in cement in opposition. The most anticipated Belmont-related news was word of criminal indictments. And the union researcher who successfully mobilized anti-Belmont forces was lionized in the L.A. Times as “The Bolshevik Who Beat Belmont.”

What a difference a year makes.

The school board this week voted 6-1 to finish the Belmont Learning Complex and enter negotiations with a team of community activists and developers who want to complete the nation‘s most notorious high school construction project. The key turnaround vote was Caprice Young’s.

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“This is the first time that I‘ve had the opportunity to vote on Belmont when I felt I had all the facts in front of me, where there is no question in the pit of my stomach about what we were voting on or what we were doing,” said Young, adding, “We’re really looking at a brand-new L.A. Unified in how we do business.”

The about-face was a stunner. Just two years ago, board members voted overwhelmingly to abandon the $200 million project forever. They judged the school as too costly and unsafe because it sits atop an oil field with spot concentrations of dangerous gases underground. Nothing has changed at the downtown school site except the political climate. Indeed, on Tuesday, the pressure was wielded by the pro-Belmont side -- even Mayor Jim Hahn stopped by to press for a yes.

The principal engineer of the turnaround was Superintendent Roy Romer, who decided that Belmont could and should be salvaged, that Belmont‘s classroom space was so badly needed that he would risk his reputation and the board’s ire to overcome its adamant opposition.

And over the past several weeks, Young reconsidered, carving out political space for a change of heart by insisting that her original anti-Belmont vote was correct at the time. Two years ago, she said, the project was fatally plagued by environmental uncertainties, and the district‘s lack of qualified real estate professionals.

It was, in retrospect, a conundrum to which Young’s board majority contributed. First, they characterized Belmont as a scandal to help win office, then they stood idle as Howard Miller, the district‘s interim chief operating officer, refused to allow the completion of belated environmental work. By that point, it was clear that state officials would almost certainly conclude that Belmont could be safely completed; for his part, Miller, who has since departed, was resolutely opposed to the school under any circumstances.

Young’s board majority also had cited the Belmont debacle as reason to clean house in the construction division. The concerns were validated by auditors, but the board essentially cashiered senior management before figuring out how to replace them.

“I now believe we have a solid team in place on the school-district side and the contractor side,” said Young in an interview. “I have confidence that our management team can successfully complete the project and bring it in on time and on budget.”

Romer also had key support from board members Mike Lansing, Jose Huizar and Marlene Canter. Lansing had opposed killing Belmont from the start. He agreed with Romer that the school, despite past scandals, offers classroom space faster than other options and at a comparatively low cost in new dollars.

At an earlier board meeting, Lansing noted that Romer‘s plan was endorsed by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency charged with overseeing school safety: “When I came on the board, the reason that I kept hearing that we weren’t doing this was, ‘DTSC is not with the program.’ Now, DTSC is with the program . . . I heard some guy write in the paper last week that DTSC doesn‘t know what it’s doing now. Well, you can‘t have it both ways. We have the state agency on board saying we can move forward.”

Board member Canter said she accepts the view of environmental experts that Belmont’s safety issues are real, but entirely manageable. Canter was elected only last June, defeating anti-Belmont incumbent Valerie Fields in a hard-fought campaign. Fields, by contrast, was the board member so against Belmont that she was, in her own words, up to her hips in cement on the issue. She would fear for her safety, she said, if ever she had to set foot on the site.

Board member Huizar replaced retiring board member Victoria Castro, who had been the most stalwart pro-Belmont vote. Huizar followed suit, successfully rallying the Belmont community behind the project, while also lobbying local elected officials, most of whom now support the school.

Julie Korenstein, the lone dissenter on Tuesday, remains unconvinced that Belmont would be safe.

Given Belmont‘s tortured history, the project is hardly home free. The district must still negotiate a construction contract, which the board must approve. And that leaves an opening for David Koff, the talented, anti-Belmont union staffer whose research and behind-the-scenes maneuvering was influential in first undoing the project. On Tuesday, Koff had to suffer the indignity of having his safety issues championed mainly by certified gadflies and a self-styled oil-field expert with a mail-order doctorate.

Meanwhile, watching quietly in the background was former Belmont project director Dominic Shambra, who is now retired. Critics still take issue with Shambra’s management of Belmont, but a criminal indictment seems increasingly unlikely. Shambra was in no mood to gloat. “The researcher is not here,” he noted, referring to Koff. “He‘s still out there researching.”

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