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Up On A Roof

A school, a park and some family-sized apartments are just what the overcrowded Westlake neighborhood has needed. And that was the goal of a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the L.A. school district.

Well, as the song goes, two out of three ain’t bad.

This area, just west of downtown, will get its school and also will get housing. But instead of a grassy playground bordered by tree-lined streets, for use during and after school, the plan now calls for a playground atop a parking garage. Putting this open space on the roof is both economical and clever, but not what community leaders envisioned and well short of the ideal. Critics say the school district retreated from its commitment to develop the project alongside community members.

What happened in Westlake has ramifications well beyond the $47 million that will be spent in this one block. Over the next two decades, the region’s major investment in infrastructure is likely to be the billions spent on new schools that will rise all over Los Angeles. And local taxpayers will foot much of the bill.

L.A. Unified can erect these schools as though in a cocoon or it can integrate them into the surrounding neighborhoods. These projects could become a form of long-overdue neighborhood redevelopment. The region will thrive or suffer with the consequences for the next 100 years.

Which brings matters around to the Westlake project, hailed in March as a model collaboration — and the first of many — by Mayor James Hahn and L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer.

Before the parties started working together, the school district planned to seize land assembled for an affordable housing project. L.A. Unified altered course by selecting property at the other end of the block, and the housing developer can now move forward to secure
$13 million in funding. The new $28 million primary center will ease crowding at nearby Gratts Elementary. In addition, the school district will take advantage of its sloping site to tuck in a $6.2 million early-childhood center. The primary center will have 380 seats; the early-childhood center 176 seats. And the housing project would provide 54 two-, three- and four-bedroom family units.

A hoped-for park-like playground, however, is no longer on the school district’s drawing board.

“This is a really a good news story,” said Guy Mehula, the district’s head of new construction. “And I’m disappointed it’s getting tainted. The $4.5 million it would take to put in extra green space that is not required will go into funding an early-education center elsewhere.” Mehula added that the rooftop playground would be accessible to the public. And the school’s ultra-compact design would preserve 41 units of affordable apartment housing that would otherwise be torn down.

The merit in saving these smaller, older units is in dispute, but not the fact that relocating the tenants would add to costs.

Community leaders and activists acknowledge that the project has evolved for the better, but they contend that the school district pulled out of meetings during the summer, just as design issues were to be resolved. Then in September, they say, district officials presented the no-park plan as a veritable fait accompli.

“They didn’t bounce it off anybody. They didn’t ask for input. They just wrote the report for the school board to approve,” said David Abel, the founder of New Schools Better Neighborhoods, whose mission is embodied in its name. NSBN spent more than a quarter of a million dollars acting as community liaison for the Westlake project. “The school district’s project manager walked away from the project at the end and the district did what it wanted to do. What does that portend to how they roll out the next 120 projects?”

That’s a fundamental question, given L.A. Unified’s promise of intensive community involvement during last year’s successful school-bond campaign and also given that LAUSD hopes to pass another bond issue next year.

District planners are nervous about expanding their mission beyond constructing schools. L.A. Unified is still recovering from the financial and public-relations strain of the still-unfinished Belmont Learning Complex. That project was an early and failed effort to incorporate housing and even commercial development. First and foremost, officials know they need to prove that they can build schools at all. Second, they must show they can build schools on budget and on time.

Broader community development costs time and money, and both are at a premium. Mehula put a specific price on this cooperation at a public meeting last week. He presented three projects — including the Westlake school — that had been altered to accommodate community uses. At one school, the added tab was $300,000; at another, it was $1 million. And at Westlake, it already has cost the district $1 million more, he said, to move its school site to the other end of the block, so that the family-sized apartments can be built.

For the neighborhood, this $1 million sacrifice will be paid off many times over through the benefit of the housing. But for the school district, it’s money out of the budget. And it’s the school district that will face public denunciation if, once again, it falls behind schedule, builds less than it promised or sees school-construction costs spiral. Some district officials clearly viewed the second-guessing in Westlake as a case of no good deed going unpunished. Their initial reaction was to characterize David Abel as a lone and cranky dissenter. But he’s not alone.

“The disappointment is the missed opportunity here,” said David Marquez, executive director of Central City Neighborhood Partners, which has been involved in the collaboration. “Could we have had more housing, more open space? Now we’ve kind of limited our options.”

His concerns were echoed by Jerilyn López Mendoza, L.A. policy director for Environmental Defense. Her group holds a seat on LAUSD’s Schools and Shared Space Task Force, which is looking districtwide at how best to integrate new campuses into neighborhoods. “We have been meeting for several months and there’s nothing to show for it. People often walk out going: ‘What happened? Why are we here?’ I’m not interested in being someone’s rubber stamp.”

At the request of school board president Jose Huizar, officials have delayed board consideration of the Westlake design until next month. Huizar pledged to work with City Councilman Ed Reyes, who also expressed reservations about what happened. “The negative thing is that district staff is making these decisions without telling everyone else,” said Reyes. “This is the wrong message to be sending.”