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Alumnus Takes a Swing at College's Driving Range Plans

July 05, 2002|ERIN CHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pile of boulders resembling a haphazard Maya pyramid at Los Angeles City College has pitted an alumnus against a Los Angeles developer and the leadership of the city's community college district.

Now that construction has actually begun on a for-profit golf driving range on the public college's property, LACC alumnus Duke Russell is campaigning to stop it. Los Angeles developer Hee Cho, president of CK Realty & Management, has started pushing rocks around 3.8 acres at Melrose and New Hampshire avenues to create a driving range near Koreatown.

Meanwhile, Russell has stepped up his efforts to reverse the deal made in July 1999, well before school officials knew they would receive $147 million for campus development from last year's Proposition A referendum.

If the board could have foreseen passage of the $1.25-billion bond issue, which was divided among the city's nine community colleges, LACC probably would have set aside the land and factored it into its campus improvement plan, said Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor Mark Drummond. Now, it's too late, he said.

"It wouldn't be very honorable to say, 'Now I change my mind.' "

That's exactly what Russell wants Drummond and the board to do. He has called on politicians, alumni, faculty members and residents to urge the community college district board to cancel the contract, buy out the developer and use the property for classrooms or sports fields.

The campus, with 48 acres, doesn't "have a lot of land, and four acres is gigantic," Russell said. "That is not the way to use public land.... It's not only absurd, it's just wrong, dead wrong."

But the district board said it can do little to renege on the contract, Drummond said.

Russell's request to buy out Cho is "well beyond" the district board's financial resources, LACC President Mary Spangler said. "The district isn't about to commit to these kind of funds. Even if they did, we wouldn't have the money to develop the property."

Drummond estimated it would cost more than $10 million to buy out Cho. The school can't use any of the bond issue, Drummond and Spangler said, because the college already owns the land.

Under the contract, Cho will pay LACC $120,000 a year to lease the property, where he plans to spend $5 million building a driving range, putting green, pro shop, pan-Asian restaurant, police substation and 89 parking spaces, all slated for a January 2003 opening.

Calling his project a "win-win situation" for himself and the school, Cho said that if the school wanted the land back, he "should consider it, but right now, there is no reason" for the school to offer a buyout.

The contract allows LACC to reassess and retake the property at market value in 10 years.

There is a driving range about five miles north at Griffith Park, but Cho said his 69 tee stalls would be more accessible to golfers from Koreatown. And unlike Koreatown's three other driving ranges, Cho's would be a full-size, 200-yard facility.

Some business owners welcome the range and speculate that property values may rise.

"God love him," said artist Toby Huss, 37, who owns National Mule, a studio and store near the site. "Somebody had to do something with it and develop it."

But City Councilman Tom LaBonge, also an LACC alumnus, called the agreement "very shortsighted by the college district. They missed their mark on this."

Chancellor Drummond said he "wasn't very excited" at the time of the deal, but "looking at the blighted condition of that place, I didn't see any alternatives."

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