Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Urged on by a private developer, school-board president Victoria Castro is pressing to move forward on a school-district-subsidized shopping center as part of the $200 million Belmont Learning Complex, the state’s largest and most expensive high school construction project.

The Weekly has learned that the shopping center would cost the school system an estimated $4.8 million in subsidies to attract prospective tenants such as Denny’s, McDonald’s, Payless Shoe Stores and Chief Auto Parts. Moreover, local project executive Kenneth J. Reizes insists that if the district rejects the subsidized retail, the complex will end up costing an additional $9 million to $10 million — this for a project once touted as having a “guaranteed maximum price.”

Castro’s current push — in the form of a school-board motion introduced Tuesday — emerged from an April 28 one-on-one meeting in the bar of a posh downtown hotel with Marvin Suomi, the East Coast–based president of Kajima Urban Development, the lead company of Belmont’s construction team. According to Castro, the meeting was arranged at the request of Suomi, who contacted her office. Reliable sources close to the project tell the Weekly that Suomi and Castro strategized about how to get the shopping center approved as soon as possible, in part because news of the expected cost increases would soon become publicly known and would generate negative publicity.

In an interview, Castro insisted that Suomi, on behalf of Kajima, only asked her help in resolving the issue: “They want a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” She added that Suomi made it clear that without the retail development, project costs would rise substantially, and that the need to make a decision had reached a critical phase.

It’s not surprising that Suomi would reach out to Castro, who has been the most ardent supporter of both the Belmont project, which would relieve overcrowded schools, and the much-criticized private development team in charge of construction. But Castro told the Weekly that, despite her desire to force a decision on the issue, her own vote on the shopping center will depend on the merits of the ultimate proposal.

The shopping center would sit at the corner of First Street and Beaudry Avenue downtown. Above the shopping-center space would be a parking structure, and above that the high school. The school, in effect, sits atop a man-made concrete mountain erected to transform the steeply sloping construction site to a nearly level surface. It’s an expensive design, and one with a built-in dilemma: what to do with the empty concrete podium under the school. From the outset, district planners concocted the school-on-a-podium design with a ground-level shopping center in mind, and confidently predicted that the stores would generate revenues to offset project costs. Now that the money seems to be flowing the other way, district officials are expected to consider other options, including a child-care center and district office space.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member David Tokofsky offered yet another alternative — dumping Kajima’s retail-development plan entirely and accepting new proposals for using the base of the podium. Both his motion and that of Castro could return to the school board for a vote in two weeks.

The shopping center has been pushed to the back burner by one Belmont-related crisis after another, including recent disclosures that the school site, an old oil field, was never fully tested for contamination before construction began. Last week, officials disclosed that belated testing, with the school half-built, will cost about $1.5 million, double the original estimate. And construction delays attributed to painstaking soil analysis could cost the district still more; L.A. Unified already has hired an outside law firm to contest any effort by Kajima to improperly shift its own costs to the district by blaming environmental problems.

The school system’s overall handling of contaminated school sites, such as Belmont, has come under renewed criticism from state Senator Tom Hayden (D–Los Angeles), who accused the district of “retreating” from promised “reforms necessary to ensure that children are safe at school.” Hayden contends that a “bureaucratic trench warfare” has been raging between reformers and their opponents.

Most district officials deny Hayden’s allegations, but on Tuesday, board member Tokofsky proposed an emergency resolution directing a recently appointed school-safety team to report directly to the Board of Education. Tokofsky said it was the only way for the school board to get the unfiltered information it needs to make vital safety decisions. “Things are happening each and every day that are taking us further adrift from the proclamation that we would seek the highest standards of health and safety.”

Other board members agreed that there were problems with the internal handling of environmental issues, but challenged Tokofsky’s characterization of an emergency. “It’s too complicated an issue to decide on short notice,” said Jeff Horton, who co-sponsored Tokofsky’s motion, but not his push for immediate adoption. In the end, Tokofsky’s plan was tabled pending further review.

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