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School District Ponders Site in Atwater as Toxic Cleanup Nears

June 22, 1989|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

The owner of the former Franciscan Ceramics manufacturing plant in Atwater hopes to begin work within two weeks to clean up asbestos, lead, zinc and other toxic deposits on the 45-acre site that he plans to develop into a shopping center.

Meantime, officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District said this week that they are also looking at the property as a potential site for a new high school. They could acquire the property through eminent domain proceedings.

Bob Niccum, district director of real estate, said he will ask the Board of Education on Monday to authorize a formal study of a proposal to purchase the Franciscan site to build a school to relieve overcrowding at Belmont, Marshall and Eagle Rock high schools.

The property, at 2901 Los Feliz Blvd., has been unused for more than five years since it was identified by state officials as a hazardous site due to extensive deposits of lead residue dumped over decades of ceramics manufacturing.

The problem was compounded in December when large concentrations of cancer-causing asbestos were found. The asbestos deposits, which allegedly resulted from illegal demolition of buildings, were immediately covered with plastic sheeting and do not pose a threat to the neighborhood, according to state health officials.

Schurgin Development Corp. of Los Angeles, which bought the property in November after years of negotiations, has pledged to the state Department of Health Services and the South Coast Air Quality Management District to clean up the toxic materials on the property. State and local officials have been working with the developer for more than a year to find a workable solution.

At a community meeting at a local elementary school last week, state health officials said they expect within two weeks to approve a plan by Schurgin to remove all asbestos and lead residue from surface areas of the site and to dig out the top five feet of a pit on the northwestern portion of the property that was used by the ceramics manufacturer for disposal of lead-contaminated waste.

Hamid Saebfar, project supervisor for the state health department, said 9.3 acres of the lead-contaminated site will then be capped with concrete or asphalt to prevent surface water from leaching toxic materials into the ground water.

Sensors Check Quality

Subterranean concrete retaining walls will also be built around the pit area to block toxins from migrating underground. Monitors have been installed around the entire site to check for water and air quality, which, so far, have not been affected, Saebfar said.

Dennis Dickerson, regional chief of the state health department, said the cleanup plan, which is estimated to cost as much as $13 million, "will lead to a solution of a longstanding problem." Completion is expected within five months.

A $4.2-million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been allocated by the Los Angeles Community Development Department to pay for a portion of the shopping center development.

Deed Restrictions Planned

However, state health officials also told Atwater residents that deed restrictions will be imposed to maintain monitoring of air and water quality and any future construction over the contaminated area.

Schurgin, a leading developer of shopping centers, plans to build a $100-million shopping arcade with about 30 stores, including a major home improvement center, supermarket, restaurants, retail outlets and theaters. City officials said the development would generate more than 1,500 new jobs and $2 million a year in sales and property taxes.

The proposed development has met with mixed reaction from the community: those who welcome development of the large parcel of dilapidated and gutted factory buildings and those who fear that the development will bring traffic congestion and unwanted competition to small, local merchants.

School Adds New Twist

The interest by the school district has added a new twist to the story.

Until now, school officials had said they were only considering the property as a high school site but were deterred by the contamination on the property.

State health officials, however, said the proposed cleanup plan would make the site safe for any use, including a school.

Niccum, the school district official, said acquisition of the Franciscan property may be preferable to condemning hundreds of homes in some other area in order to obtain the amount of land needed to build a high school.

"We have looked at alternative high school sites for at least five years," Niccum said. "Virtually all of those sites involved somewhere in the order of 200 or 300 homes. There is no way that we can put together the amount of land that we need."

Could Relieve Overcrowding

He said Belmont High School, near downtown Los Angeles, "is one of the most crowded in the city." If the Franciscan site is chosen, he said attendance boundaries could be redrawn to relieve overcrowding at Belmont, Marshall in Los Feliz and Eagle Rock High School.

Niccum said the district could complete a feasibility study on the Franciscan site within five months, about the time that the contamination cleanup by Schurgin is expected to be finished. However, he admitted that the developer, who has pledged millions of dollars to the cleanup operation, is opposed to turning over the property to the district.

"Most people who go to that extent are not going to welcome a public agency with open arms," Niccum said. "But we would expect to pay the full market price, including the cost of the cleanup."

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