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Breaking the Belmont Jinx 

Councilman Reyes has a plan to salvage ill-fated school BY

Thursday, May 15 2003
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Maybe there is such a thing as the Belmont jinx. Maybe no school will ever open on the oil-contaminated, earthquake-faulted, politically accursed site of the Belmont Learning Complex — no matter how many millions of dollars are thrown at it.

But Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes doesn’t believe in curses. At least not this one. Not yet.

Reyes has come forward with the latest compelling plan to finish the downtown school, even as some school-board members are ready to sell off the 35-acre property. Reyes wants all the existing buildings finished, except for the two on top of a recently revealed earthquake fault. Enough of the half-finished structure would be left for a badly needed 2,600-student school as well as this new wrinkle: a 14-acre nature park built and managed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

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Reyes unveiled his plan last week during a press briefing at the weed-strewn site, with a backdrop of the brand-new yet boarded-up campus. It is time, he said, to “once and for all end the madness that has surrounded this project . . . what some have referred to as the Belmont jinx.”

The hastily assembled 11th-hour plan has the backing of almost every local elected official, including area school-board member Jose Huizar, a tireless advocate for making something work at Belmont. But the coalition lacks the essential support of a school-board majority and L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer. Backers won a one-week reprieve to turn the tide when Romer scratched a scheduled “final” action on Belmont from Tuesday’s meeting agenda.

 

Reyes, a former city planner, began this foray about a year ago. He was standing one day on neighboring Crown Hill, looking around for likely parkland. With him was Joseph T. Edmiston, head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. They inescapably took in the hilly expanse of the incomplete $200 million Belmont Learning Complex, which sat in limbo after the school board “canceled” the project in January 2000.

Now, that would make a fine park, thought Reyes. And why not a fine school as well?

Why not, indeed? Since the early 1990s, the Belmont project has been the subject of intense political debate, with critics faulting its massive size, its insider development deal and its lax supervision. The school board finally halted the project because of safety concerns related to the school’s oil-field site.

Superintendent Romer, a relative latecomer to Belmont, vowed to resolve safety problems and finish the school. But his plan was torpedoed last fall by the discovery of an earthquake fault running through the middle of the property. Anything built right over the fault could be torn apart if the two sides of the fault ever move in different directions. Romer has leaned toward abandoning the existing construction and starting over with a smaller school atop firm bedrock in the north portion. Some school-board members are wary of going forward at all.

The Reyes-Edmiston alternative, which saves most of the current structures, has the potential to deliver more school seats more quickly than other options. Proponents talk of a $30 million to $40 million savings as well, though this faster-cheaper paradigm has failed at Belmont before.

The park portion is a key for Reyes: “For this community, there is no Santa Monica Mountains nearby, because we don’t, frankly, have the cars or the licenses.”

Edmiston’s group would use bond money under its control to pay for the park, an estimated $3 million, and arrange funding for upkeep, while also providing direct instruction to students via the park and mountain field trips.

The area’s state representatives said they favor the park plan. L.A. Mayor James Hahn and county Supervisor Gloria Molina also have blessed the park proposal.

And then there’s another political factor. Up till now, Belmont has been a bogeyman for Westside and Valley interests moved more by the cost overruns and the site’s environmental concerns than by the plight of the working-class families that the school would serve. But now, the Conservancy, an influential Westside environmental organization, has taken up the cause. And while the effort could still use the celebrity chic of Streisand or Cruise, at least Conservancy board chair Jerry Daniel is on board. “I think it’s terrific,” said Daniel. “This is our mission. This is what we do.”

Edmiston said the park would include a variety of habitats, including a lake with fish, a wetlands and an oak savanna. In South Los Angeles, the conservancy created the smaller, 8.5-acre Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, which opened in December 2000 to wide acclaim.

“The Conservancy is totally committed to bringing nature to the inner city,” said Edmiston. “There is not one private school in Southern California that will have a beautiful natural park adjacent and integrated into it . . . This will be the best school in Los Angeles.”

But of course there’s still the jinx, which in the end has more to do with political voodoo than the bona fide supernatural. Even the much-ballyhooed earthquake fault is a red herring in the view of some geologists. Still, school-board members have seen elections seemingly won and lost on Belmont. If they are shaking, it isn’t from an earthquake.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg suggests courage as the curative. “All it takes is for people to give up their fear of political consequences,” said Goldberg, a former L.A. school-board member. “Standing up for the right thing to do is more important than their political careers . . . If we don’t, [Belmont] will be a blot on the political landscape of Los Angeles forever.”

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