COMMERCE — When the Montebello Unified School District moved to condemn land for a new elementary school here last month, the developer walked away from a partially completed warehouse project that all sides concede could pose safety problems.
While the school district and the developer, Trammell Crow Co., are locked in an argument over who should pay to make the site safe, the 36-foot-high, concrete slabs that comprise the sides of a warehouse remain only temporarily secured at the northeast corner of Gage and Garfield avenues.
"Each of those panels weighs between 15 and 20 tons and they're standing up with temporary bracing. They could fall on Gage Avenue. Cars, trucks and school children walk down that street," said Hayden C. Eaves III, managing partner of Trammell Crow's Los Angeles division.
Trammell Crow says it stopped all construction on the 14-acre site when the school district on Jan. 9 filed a condemnation suit in Superior Court to seize the land. The work was stopped, the developer's representatives said, because valuation of the property was frozen at that point for the purposes of establishing a fair level of compensation if the property is condemned.
Since the school district created the problem by moving to condemn a construction project at a crucial point, Trammell Crow says, the district should pay the $100,000 to $150,000 it would cost to make the site safe. Without assurance that the school district would reimburse the company, Trammell Crow says it will not return to the site.
District Denies Responsibility
The school district says it will not provide that assurance and argues that the responsibility rests on Trammel Crow.
The district's Board of Education voted unanimously on Jan. 8 to condemn the project.
"They own the property. They're in possession of the property. The obligation to do something is theirs," said Jeff Marderosian, an attorney who represents the Montebello school district.
The Building and Safety Division of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works notified Trammel Crow on Jan. 12 that the building "can be dangerous," building and safety spokesman Ambers Harvey said.
"Any building under construction is dangerous until it's completed," said Harvey, who added that the construction site was not dangerous enough to notify the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take immediate action.
Not the City's Responsibility
Commerce officials acknowledge the potential danger but say it is not the city's responsibility. Like Trammell Crow officials, Commerce officials contend that the Montebello school district must provide for making the site safe.
"We're informing the school district that they have to get in there and do something immediately with that because we feel it's a hazardous situation," said Ira Gwin, Commerce director of community development. "We can't step in. It's the school district's responsibility."
Trammell Crow contends that if the panels should fall and hurt someone, the school district would be liable.
"If someone got hurt we'd be sued, but the school district also has interest in the property," Eaves said. "They're in a very high liability (situation)."
The district wants to build a new school on the Trammell Crow site to make room for a student population that is expected to rise from about 30,800 students to 33,700 pupils by the 1991-92 school year, district business manager Stephen L. Phillips said.
The district serves students from eight cities in 27 elementary, intermediate and high schools.
Portable Classrooms Used
"The overcrowding is acute in the south end of the district," said Phillips, who noted that all of the district's schools have portable buildings that subtract from recreation and other school areas.
Trammell Crow and the district have been locked in a months-long battle over the site, which was to house a four-building warehouse and distribution complex that would eventually create more than 325 full-time jobs. The complex was to contain 325,000 square feet of floor space. The walls of the other three buildings had not been erected.
The developer's representative argued that the school district should not disrupt the construction project when there is a vacant 10.5-acre site less than a mile away. The site at Gage and Greenwood avenues across from the Commerce branch library is a reclaimed trash dump. It was once home to a trucking company and holds a small terminal building.
The price of that site is about $1.5 million, while the Trammell Crow site could cost the district more than $12 million once a settlement is reached or the condemnation is final, Eaves said.
"They're willing to spend $10 million more of the taxpayers' money," Eaves said.
City Offered to Help