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Tempting Belmont

Photo by Virginia Hunter

Two months after the school board killed the Belmont Learning Complex — once and for all, it seemed — supporters of the high school project have massaged a faint pulse back into the corpse.

The CPR has arrived in the form of a proposed environmental study to determine — again, once and for all — if the Belmont school, which sits half-finished above a shallow oil field, can be made safe for students at a reasonable cost. In January, school-district officials had canceled just such a study when they ditched the learning complex, which was already the nation’s most expensive high school project. Why pay to analyze a dead letter? they reasoned.

But for project supporters, the safety study quickly has become a strategic rallying point. What was the district afraid of finding out? What if a finished school were not as hazardous or would not add as much additional cost as presumed? The pressure from critics reached a new level over the last week, when no less than three offers emerged to pay for completion of the safety study.

The first offer came last Thursday, from a member of the outside committee overseeing the spending of local school bonds. Bring a responsible proposal for a study, said David Abel, and he was certain the committee would seriously consider sanctioning school bonds to pay for it, he told district officials.

“The taxpayers need to know,” said committee chair Steve Soboroff later, sounding much like a candidate for mayor — which he is. “The perception is that it’s an environmental issue that’s keeping that school from opening. If the study shows that the school can be opened safely, you’ve saved $50 million or $100 million in money that can be used elsewhere to build or repair schools in the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro, East L.A. or South-Central Los Angeles. I don’t know what the answer is, but neither does the school district.”

The second offer came moments after the first, from county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents the Belmont area and has spearheaded a pro-learning-complex coalition. She literally rose from the audience to offer $1 million of county discretionary funds — in the form of either a loan or an outright grant — to fund the study.

One million dollars would be more than enough to do the job, which could be finished in four months’ time, according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which would oversee the analysis.

At the Thursday meeting, Soboroff immediately seized on Molina’s offer, challenging school-board member Caprice Young, who also was in attendance, to accept the deal on the spot.

“I’m never one to turn down a million bucks,” said Young, haltingly. Still, Young, who had voted to cancel Belmont, was clearly reluctant to revisit the issue. What about underfunded child-care services and other county needs? she responded.

“It’s not your money, it’s my money,” shot back Molina.

“It’s taxpayers’ money,” countered Young, adding that it’s time to move beyond Belmont.

Interviewed after the meeting, Molina said that she would not simply hand $1 million to L.A. Unified. But if district officials prepared a formal request, she would sponsor an emergency resolution to make the money quickly available.

“I want to take away the issue of money as a reason for not doing the study,” Molina said.

The third offer was perhaps the most compelling of all. In an interview with the Weekly on Sunday, state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa disclosed his plans to seek state funds. “You gotta finish the study so we can decide what to do with Belmont in the future,” said Villaraigosa, who is also a candidate for mayor. “How do you walk away from a $170 million investment without doing that? It’s irresponsible, in my mind.”

The state appropriation would be available in the fiscal year starting July 1. But the school district doesn’t have to wait that long, said Villaraigosa, who is confident that his proposal will be approved. The district could resume the study immediately, then file for reimbursement later.

The stances of Soboroff and Villaraigosa — two leading candidates for mayor — are striking. Until the March primary, conventional wisdom held that an association with the Belmont project was the kiss of death for a local politician. The project was tarred from the start by embarrassing revelations, conflicts of interest and questionable management, before finally grinding to a halt over safety issues. The school site, a shallow oil field on the edge of downtown, contains pockets of naturally occurring methane gas, which is explosive, and scattered hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. The project also faced the skilled and persistent opposition of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees, with support from other unions. They entered the fray in solidarity against the Kajima corporation, the project’s lead developer, because the company has a controlling interest in an anti-union downtown hotel.

It was union precinct walkers who torched the state Assembly campaign of pro-Belmont school-board member Victoria Castro. Two fellow Belmont supporters, Jeff Horton and Barbara Boudreaux, lost their school-board seats when Mayor Richard Riordan and his allies used Belmont as a central theme in their well-funded campaign to install a new board majority.

But the Belmont logic altered with the March primary. Take the case of environmental attorney Barry Groveman, a school-district adviser, who portrayed himself in television ads as the avenging angel on Belmont, the uncoverer of foul deeds. He finished last among the three contenders. His anti-Belmont position may have won some votes, but being on the “right” side of Belmont was plainly not decisive in that contest. And Assemblyman Scott Wildman, who played a prominent role in first investigating and then opposing the Belmont complex, lost his bid for the state Senate against fellow Democratic Assemblyman Jack Scott. Then there’s City Council Member Jackie Goldberg, who won the Democratic primary for a state Assembly seat despite voting to acquire the most contaminated portion of the Belmont site as a past member of the school board — a history that was exploited unsuccessfully by her opponent.

So, at the very least, the prominence of Belmont in voters’ minds apparently declines as political distance from the school district increases. Which gives Villaraigosa and Soboroff an opportunity to score some bona fides with the Latino community, which includes many Belmont supporters. After all, Soboroff, a Palisades Republican with a natural base among Valley conservatives, needs to establish a beachhead with Latinos. Villaraigosa, on the other hand, is trying to get a leg up on Congressman Xavier Becerra, a Latino rival whose powerful Latino backers include a strong pro-Belmont contingent. If Villaraigosa, a left-wing Democrat, could edge Becerra out of the race, he’d have a strong shot at getting into a runoff.

But the evolving political landscape also bears directly on the long-term prospects for the Belmont project itself. Leaving the state Legislature are Wildman — Belmont’s staunchest foe — and state Senator Tom Hayden — Belmont’s most wily opponent. Term limits are forcing out Hayden, who opted not to run for a different seat. Coming in is Jackie Goldberg, who wasted no time lobbying all over town for the Belmont complex — once she helped ensure her election landslide by telling voters that she never had anything to do with Belmont. Goldberg was among the first to propose using state funds to finish the environmental study, a viable prospect given her skill as a legislator. Villaraigosa simply beat her to the punch, and perhaps necessarily so, because next year may be too late to salvage the Belmont project.

For his part, Villaraigosa now has a dual distinction as both killer and savior of Belmont. The “killer” part occurred in November 1998. Villaraigosa acknowledges that he used his influence as speaker to block state funding for the construction of Belmont. The funding item has never resurfaced.

“I supported Wildman,” said Villaraigosa. “The school district was arrogant. They moved ahead with the construction despite all the questions we had about Belmont. I said, ‘There won’t be any state money.’ And they said, ‘So what? We don’t need your money.’ They never wanted to give full and open disclosure.”

Villaraigosa says he has analogous concerns about full disclosure now that an anti-Belmont school board holds the reins: “I still have not heard a cogent, understandable explanation why the toxicity is greater at the Belmont site than a few blocks away,” he said, at the site of the old, overcrowded Belmont High. “There’s nothing conclusive that supports one view or the other. And I don’t have the expertise, so let’s go to the DTSC, which does.”

Villaraigosa’s nuanced track record on Belmont has earned him the disdain of uncompromising advocates on both sides. Sources close to both camps looked with suspicion on Villaraigosa’s meeting last month at the exclusive California Club with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the top luminary at the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers. Until recently, the O’Melveny firm represented the school district on Belmont; now the school system is suing O’Melveny for malpractice. Villaraigosa denies rumors that he urged Christopher to settle the lawsuit — to make peace by paying L.A. Unified several million dollars — rather than engage in a protracted, divisive public debate over Belmont. He said that he mainly discussed his bid for mayor with Christopher, and that neither he nor Christopher made Belmont a topic of discussion.

Whatever the case, the malpractice litigation has unshackled a powerful ally for Belmont proponents. If a jury were to conclude that O’Melveny was guilty of malpractice at Belmont, the law firm — L.A.’s most prestigious — could be liable for the school district’s losses at Belmont. These damages could surpass $100 million if Belmont is written off as a total loss, not to mention the damage to O’Melveny’s reputation. That’s why the firm is so intent on advocating for Belmont’s completion. For Belmont supporters, the effect has been to provide them — pro bono — with O’Melveny’s unlimited assistance. They also get the services of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the powerful law firm representing O’Melveny; Environ, the company performing environmental tests for O’Melveny; and Rose & Kindel, one of the city’s most influential lobbying firms, also brought in by O’Melveny.

Predictably, the law firm is providing information obtained in the course of this litigation to benefit any effort to revive Belmont. To reinforce the doubts of Villaraigosa and others about hazards at Belmont, O’Melveny provided test results from old Belmont High and school-district headquarters, both of which are near the abandoned school project. Belmont High turned up with positive readings for methane and hydrogen sulfide; district headquarters for methane. O’Melveny also made immediate strategic use of deposition testimony obtained from Howard Miller, the school district’s chief operating officer. In his deposition, Miller acknowledged that he based his recommendation to cancel Belmont, in large measure, on the unavailability of state or bond funds to pay for the project. He said he did not want to commit to Belmont any more of the district’s general operating funds, the same money that would otherwise pay for books, pencils and teachers. Miller also conceded that he made no effort to verify that outside funding would never be available.

“That information translated almost immediately to a public strategy of putting the bond-oversight committee back into the funding picture with the help of Soboroff,” said David Koff, the union researcher who has organized the campaign against the learning complex, almost from the beginning. “This also applies to the offers by Molina and Villaraigosa. It’s not that these ideas haven’t been out there before. But as a way of undermining Miller’s recommendation, every point that O’Melveny could extract from the deposition is immediately handed off to the project supporters — who are, for better or worse, serving O’Melveny’s interests.

“This is a war against the Belmont area and its kids and families,” added Koff, “an attempt to undermine the credibility of the school board and hamper the effort to find other school sites for students.”

Of course, this no-holds-barred, never-say-die approach is a page right out of Koff’s own playbook on Belmont. Koff never gave up opposing Belmont even after the project was approved, even after construction was well under way. Belmont proponents are not surrendering either — regardless of the school board’s “final” determination. The “Build Belmonters” insist that they are taking advantage of O’Melveny’s self-interest only to pursue a public interest.

Whether any of this jockeying will make a difference is another question. In reality, all the storm and stress may ultimately play for the benefit of an audience of one — Mayor Richard Riordan. Unlike other political players, Riordan has the wherewithal to shake the resolve of a school-board majority that he personally helped install in office, should he choose to exercise it. So far he has not. It was Riordan’s fund-raising that fueled the election of a new school-board majority, and he could do the same thing next time around. Board members may be particularly anxious for his support because they are currently locked in acrimonious contract negotiations with the teachers union — the other 500-pound gorilla of school-board elections.

Soboroff, a senior adviser to the mayor, said he has no idea where Riordan stands on completing the safety study and that his own actions are his responsibility alone. Riordan’s only statement till now is an expression of general support for Miller and the school board.

Meanwhile, district officials will be hard-pressed to spurn Villaraigosa’s offer. Even if the Belmont land is sold off, L.A. Unified will almost certainly have to conduct an environmental study of the property. Miller said talks are now proceeding with the DTSC, the state safety agency, over how such a study would proceed given the cancellation of the school. Even if possible funding sources emerge, Miller told the Weekly this week, he is inclined against finishing Belmont because of the district’s past experience with badly contaminated sites. The cleanup costs always end up significantly higher than predicted, he said.

And even a promising safety study from the DTSC may hold little sway with board members. “Who’s going to assume the liability to the tune of Erin Brockovich if a kid blows up sliding into second base?” said school-board member David Tokofsky. “Nobody is stepping up with the money for that piece.”

Tokofsky also faulted the school’s size — it would house about 5,000 students on a year-round schedule — and its placement downtown, where housing stock could decline in conjunction with an expansion of the business district. In contrast to the Belmont concept, “Howard Miller has intelligently designed a plan for smaller schools that are located right smack where the kids live. The Belmont Learning Complex is conceptually and instructionally unsound. Maybe it would have been nice if Robespierre could have rehabbed the Bastille, but instead he just left it as a monument to the ancien régime. At Belmont, I don’t think anything can compensate for the faulty foundations.”


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