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Quaking Over Belmont

Over the last 3 million years, a lot happened in greater Los Angeles that had nothing to do with starlets. The mighty San Gabriel Mountains rose from flat earth to 10,000 feet in the air, while the sand and gravel from rushing rivers built the plains of the San Fernando Valley and the L.A. basin. Some 20,000 years ago, during the great Ice Age, redwoods thrived in the Santa Monica mountains and mastodons grazed. Sabertooth tigers stalked giant ground sloths around the La Brea Tar Pits, and left behind their bones.

During that vast 3 million--year span, a section of earth gradually slid past another section of earth under what would become the future site of the Belmont Learning Complex in downtown Los Angeles. This left-lateral fault, moved by earthquakes inches at a time, is so comparatively unimportant that the geologist who confirmed its existence is not surprised that others missed it. And yet this minuscule geologic occurrence, confirmed within the last several months and announced last week, has almost certainly doomed a substantial portion of the half-built learning complex. In fact, the entire project, the nation’s most expensive high school, is in mortal jeopardy once again -- because of this fault and also because of a reasons that have nothing to do with seismic shaking.

Opponents of the star-crossed project could not resist an I-told-you-so moment, but if critics saw this coming, they sure kept awfully quiet about it. District officials themselves set these recent and startling events in motion by commissioning yet another study of the Belmont-area portion of the Los Angeles City Oil Field. The goal was to make absolutely sure that the mostly spent oil reserves were not rapidly recharging from below; they wanted to make sure the school‘s safety design would prevent petroleum or its hazardous byproducts from seeping onto playing fields or under buildings. The news on that score turned out to be good; there was no apparent cause for alarm.

But the oil-field consultants also flagged anomalies in the data that suggested an earthquake fault about 725 feet underground. School-district officials brought in more consultants. Workers, like hyperactive gophers, dug more than a mile’s worth of trenches four to 12 feet deep across the 35-acre site.

The process of theorizing and then confirming the fault has taken at least six months, and the work was, for the most part, carried out in secret, but schools Superintendent Roy Romer kept close watch. ”I visited that site and got down in the trenches with the geologists about five to seven times,“ said Romer this week. ”Until near the end, I didn‘t expect them to find anything.“ Romer was duty-bound to be optimistic: He’d been a driving force to finish Belmont in the first place, after the school board halted the project in January 2000 over different safety worries. The fear then was that students faced potential harm from oil-field-related gases. Romer invested his own prestige and the school system‘s political capital into resurrecting Belmont -- because more than $150 million had already been spent and because he needed the school to ease widespread overcrowding.

This latest problem arose during the recent school-bond campaign, on which Romer’s entire school-construction program depended; predictably, the Belmont conundrum was purposefully kept under wraps. ”There was a lot of concern about that,“ commented one district source, who asked to remain anonymous. ”You can imagine that we really didn‘t want this big issue to come up before the election.“ The belated discovery of a Belmont killer could have doomed the message of the bond campaign: that the school district had finally learned how to do things right.

Romer got his school bond, but still kept the matter quiet. Even school-board members were largely in the dark until last week, when the direst possibility was confirmed and had to be confronted.

The seismic danger, though uncertain, can’t be ruled out, said Kerry Sieh, a Caltech geology professor and senior consultant with Earth Consultants International, which was brought in by L.A. Unified. By way of comparison, the Belmont campus is probably substantially less threatened than University High in West L.A. University High has less up-to-date buildings, and it sits at the crest of a steep slope that was created by movement of the Santa Monica fault, an active fault, said Sieh, citing the work of other researchers. The size of the fault under University High dwarfs what‘s under Belmont. It’s like ”comparing a squirrel to a camel,“ said Sieh. And other district school sites, he added, including the Ambassador Hotel property and the proposed arts high school across from the downtown cathedral, could be vulnerable to faults like the one at Belmont.

But district officials have no stomach for an avoidable gamble at Belmont, ”Lots of buildings will likely have to be abandoned after the next big earthquake,“ said school-district health and safety director Angelo Bellomo. ”Some of them may be schools. But I don‘t want any of our new school buildings on that list.“

The region’s bedrock is full of largely unmapped, harmless faults that could look much like this one. ”If you were to strip bare the bedrock areas of downtown L.A., you would find inactive faults on every block or two,“ said Chris Wills, supervising geologist with the California Geological Survey. ”They‘re ubiquitous. There are faults all over the place that go underneath buildings of all kinds. An inactive fault beneath a structure is not a great reason to be concerned.“

The problem is that a fault can only be judged inactive by looking at the layers of soil or strata above it -- to see if they’ve ruptured in the last 11,000 years. And at the Belmont site, remnants of undisturbed topsoil got stripped away during construction. This week, officials disclosed their intent to dig into a parking lot across the street from Belmont to look on less-disturbed ground for possible clues. But it‘s hard to imagine officials backing any scenario that leaves a school building straddling a fault.

One option is to finish the school by reconfiguring the buildings that don’t sit above the fault -- and most of them don‘t. These are the buildings that run along Beaudry Street, parallel to the 110 freeway. But it might be less expensive to start from scratch and erect a smaller school on the solid bedrock that underlies about 12 acres on the western portion of the site. And nothing, said Sieh, would preclude using even the fault zone for playing fields. Superintendent Romer has asked staff to return with alternatives in 30 to 60 days.

So for the umpteenth time in the last decade, the question is what to do about Belmont.

The critics have every reason to question why this fault wasn’t discovered before construction began. The original geologic work was handled by the firm of LawCrandall, which answered to the proj- ect developer, not the school district. No one has accused LawCrandall of substandard work. For the most part, its staffers followed the standard practice of conducting a field survey and relying on existing maps and previous research to identify rupture zones. The Belmont property does not lie in an identified zone. It wouldn‘t, because the fault in question had never been reported.

LawCrandall could have literally dug deeper, but no one apparently asked it to. Not the developer, not the school district, not the city, not the state. The state never contacted, for example, its in-house experts with the California Geological Survey to review Belmont, noted state geologist Wills.

Regardless, the seismic issue could have been resolved with an early study of the topsoil. This opportunity quickly disappeared because the Belmont design was especially destructive of the original hillside. At the time, project planners were hell-bent on sticking a shopping center underneath the school, and they carved away much of the natural topography in the process.

The current push to finish Belmont faces other hurdles, too, including difficult negotiations with the favored developer. In March, board members were told to expect a construction contract in 90 days. A revised December 31 deadline is rapidly approaching, and sources report that the developer’s price is well above what the school board had been told to expect. Part of the problem, again according to district sources, is an exorbitant insurance policy. The earthquake fault puts that entire negotiating process on hold. Actually, on death watch would be more accurate, given the school board‘s morose mood this week on Belmont’s future.

Board member Julie Korenstein has consistently opposed the project, while board members David Tokofsky and Caprice Young seen disinclined to spend ever more money on a project staggered by one catastrophe after another, especially in the midst of a budget crisis. And there is something patently ridiculous about tearing down all or part of a costly new school just to build elsewhere on the same site.

To Tokofsky, one more Belmont misadventure is both one too many and utterly predictable. ”When Superintendent Romer called me and told me about the earthquake fault, I said, ‘That’s no surprise.‘“

The district also had been trying to get experts from USC to oversee future monitoring of the system that would control oil-field gases. But talks with the university had not yet yielded an agreement.

And then there are other valid questions about how best to proceed with the project itself. Some experts consider Belmont’s proposed gas-control safety system too expensive and needlessly complicated. That issue was among others raised late last month by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has jurisdiction over new schools.

School-board member Jose Huizar, who represents the area, left no doubt where he stands at a community meeting Monday at Gratts Elementary. Shouldn‘t the district salvage a desperately needed school, he said, if it can still be brought on line quickly and safely and at a reasonable cost of new dollars? ”What other site has been studied as much as this site?“ said Huizar. ”We own the property, and it’s hard to find even four- to five-acre properties in this area. The answer is obvious. There‘s still a need for the Belmont Learning Complex, no matter how you look at it.“

His point was underscored by speakers who recounted horror stories of overcrowding at the old Belmont High, just blocks away from the new campus. Parent Edith Gonzalez, 36, noted that her second-grade daughter could become a second-generation victim of L.A. Unified. As a high schooler, Gonzalez had been bused to the Valley, and she dropped out of school for a time when family problems made the commute impossible.

Residents said repeatedly that they won’t accept that it‘s unsafe to attend school where they live. One speaker pointed out that two students died in a 1995 traffic accident while being bused out of their neighborhood. Robin Nelson, who lives across from old Belmont High, focused on another sort of risk. ”What is more dangerous,“ she asked, ”building on a potentially inactive fault line or ruining the education of all these students?“