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SCI-Arc Students Draw on Building Delays

Downtown L.A.: They have no architecture studios as temporary campus falls behind schedule, but most try to see it as a good lesson.


The new school year is only a few days old, but the students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture have already learned a valuable lesson familiar to veteran builders: Things never go according to plan.

In this case, the school's nearly 500 students and staff spent much of the first two weeks of class outdoors or off campus because their temporary home in downtown Los Angeles was not ready. City fire and building officials allowed SCI-Arc to occupy temporary classrooms early last week, but a giant tent housing student studios was still off-limits as of Monday.

"There are a lot of people who are quite upset about it," said graduate student Faith Jarratt Rouse, who was studying in the virtually open-air railroad freight building that will eventually serve as the main school building. "But it's also a design problem. This is the kind of situation that isn't often mentioned in a textbook."

The school initially planned to start classes at its new central city home--a nearly quarter-mile-long former railroad freight terminal--early next year after the building had been renovated. But leaders of the acclaimed school of architecture decided to jump-start the move after they were offered a large financial bonus to leave their Marina del Rey area building, which has been leased to an advertising firm.

The financial windfall will help SCI-Arc purchase its new downtown campus outright instead of leasing it for several years, said school President Neil Denari. But it also left the staff with only four months to plan and build a temporary home on a lot adjacent to the nearly century-old railroad building. That proved to be an overly ambitious schedule, even for a school of architects with the support of Mayor Richard Riordan's office.

"We obviously missed our mark a little bit," Denari said as he gave a tour of the sunbaked site in the artists loft district. "They [students] are anxious to get their stuff in and get grounded."

Complicating matters is the fact that the school undertook the move before acquisition of the property at Santa Fe Avenue and 3rd Street has been completed. The school was going to lease and eventually buy the long-abandoned railroad building from Beverly Hills-based SY Realty Investors, which was going to spearhead the purchase and development of the 10.5-acre parcel that would include the school and about 400 units of housing and commercial space. But SY Realty, which had said it would buy the property and start work on the $60-million project by the end of the summer, has still not completed the acquisition.

SY Realty spokesman Greg Kahwajian said the purchase of the complete parcel has been delayed as attention has focused on getting SCI-Arc's temporary campus up and running and securing financing to buy the old freight building.

"There have been a lot of moving pieces," said Kahwajian. "Everybody is working as hard as they can."

Despite delays setting up its temporary campus, SCI-Arc seems to have had better luck lining up financing. Last week, the city Community Development Department gave initial approval to award the school $1.5 million in grants for the purchase of the property. Also, the city's Industrial Development Authority is prepared to back a bond issue of at least $5 million to complete the acquisition.

"The city is very much behind the project," said Carey Jenkins, manager of the development authority. "We are going to do all we can to help them every step of the way."

Many SCI-Arc students and faculty have voiced frustrations over the delays, computer problems and lack of studio space. But the students interviewed on campus late last week continued to support the avant garde school and its decision to move to the urban core of Los Angeles.

As of Friday, none of the students had dropped out as a result of the delays, school officials said. The semester will be extended by a week or two for some graduate students working on thesis projects, Denari said.

"Everybody is trying to be patient," said 24-year-old graduate student Chris Classen of Nebraska. "SCI-Arc is about experimentation and this is a very valuable experience."

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