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Groundbreaking for Community Center Is New Symbol of Delay


The ceremony was intended to mark a victory over delay and disappointment: After three years of effort, ground was being broken for a long-promised community center for residents of the San Fernando Gardens public housing project in Pacoima.

Bureaucrats noted the need for the center--whose purpose was to provide space for job training and language classes, gang-prevention programs and day-care services for the children of working parents. And they commented on how long the project's nearly 2,000 residents had been waiting.

"The residents here had a lot of disappointments over the years," Alonso Almeida, deputy director of the city's Community Development Department, said at the time. "They are used to hearing promises."

Now, nearly a year later, Almeida's words sound prophetic. The parched vacant lot where the ceremony was held remains empty. And the community center remains stalled by bureaucratic wrangling over the construction contract.

"Some people are skeptical and others don't care any more," said Luz Elena Tafolla, president of the San Fernando Gardens residents advisory group.

"The typical bureaucratic disillusionment has set in again," agreed Abie Medina, a community development official who coordinates the operations of five community service centers, including the one that now operates out of an apartment at San Fernando Gardens. "People come in and say they're going to do this and then they don't."

San Fernando Gardens has been without a bona fide community center since the 33-acre public housing complex was built in 1955.

Instead, a four-bedroom apartment has been used to issue information about social services and to provide a place for a variety of professionals, such as family counselors and health care workers, to meet with clients. Last week, the tiny office became a food bank where residents lined up to receive free groceries.

In addition to providing space for classes and social service programs, the planned 5,000-square-foot, one-story center will serve as a meeting hall for the project's residents, about 93% of whom are Latino and most of whom speak only Spanish.

Frustrated city officials blame the contractor for the delays.

The Los Angeles Housing Authority in April, 1991, awarded the $538,000 contract for construction of the center to Soar Corp. of La Habra. But Soar officials later withdrew their bid in a dispute over a subcontractor, said Raymond Hege, director of modernization for the housing authority.

Soar officials said the city was partly responsible for the delays but would not offer any further explanation.

Then the city began discussions with F & S Construction Co. of Encino, which had been the second-lowest bidder for the contract.

Switching contractors is expected to increase the project's price tag by $105,000, which reflects the higher bid of F & S plus cost increases resulting from the yearlong delay.

Officials hope to recoup some or all of the added expenses from Soar's insurance company, Hege said. The increase raises the construction budget to $643,000, with the total project cost now estimated at $800,000.

The bulk of the funding--$660,000--will come from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rest is to come from the city and other federal and local sources. City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a longtime proponent of the center, has agreed to direct $76,000 in federal block grants and more than $60,000 in other funds, if needed, to the project.

A new construction date has not been set. Hege said F & S needs to provide proof that it has obtained a performance bond, guaranteeing that the project will be completed for the agreed-upon price. He said he expected that within three months, it will be possible to set a date for construction to begin.

Still, others are no longer willing to venture a guess as to when the project may start.

"This case in particular has been very frustrating because the technical and legal knots that have been tied are just very difficult to loosen," said Dave Mays, chief deputy for Bernardi. "We're just going to keep pushing it until it becomes a reality."

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