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Mold May Force Razing of Planned High School Site

L.A. Unified: Though cleaned up, the Sun Valley DWP structure the district is buying may have a recurring problem. Final decision awaits further study.

October 01, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building in Sun Valley that was due to be sold and converted into a sorely needed high school next year may have to be knocked down because of toxic mold, school district officials said.

To ease overcrowding in the east San Fernando Valley, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced plans two years ago to buy the Anthony Office Building from the city for $50 million and open it as a high school by last summer.

When mold was discovered in February, the district changed the opening date to July 2003. Now officials fear that the mold is a chronic problem that can be eradicated only by razing the building, which would delay the opening of a new school by several years.

"This is a real travesty," said Los Angeles Board of Education member Julie Korenstein, who favors tearing down the building. The project "just seems to get worse, worse and worse."

Although medical studies are disputed, mold has been blamed for severe allergies, migraines and respiratory problems. It has also become an emotional and expensive issue for many school districts.

At L.A. Unified's controversial Belmont Learning Complex, a review on the growth of possibly toxic mold is underway, with the results due soon, said Jim McConnell, the district's chief facilities executive.

Unlike at Belmont, where $175 million has been spent on construction and the capping of hazardous gas, the district made a $500,000 refundable deposit a year ago on the Anthony Office Building and now has six months to close escrow.

If it completes the transaction, the district would have to mitigate mold problems as they arise or level the structure and start from scratch.

A final decision will be made pending the findings of an environmental study of the building being conducted by the DWP.

"Our main concern is the safety of the kids and the public's confidence in us," said Roderick Hamilton, senior facilities executive for L.A. Unified, explaining that the district decided several months ago that it could not meet the July 2003 deadline after the DWP said the mold could return.

Despite the school district's concerns, DWP officials say the mold was cleaned up earlier this year and its 700 employees who work in the customer phone services and billing branches housed in the structure have nothing to fear.

The four-story building's air quality, which is tested every other week, has been deemed safe for now, said Hal Lindsey, DWP director of corporate safety.

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo filed a $20-million lawsuit in July against the building's contractors, blaming the mold on shoddy workmanship. The lawsuit alleges that water was trapped inside the building's walls because of design and material defects. The suit also contends that 20 office workers have complained of respiratory problems.

In a prepared statement, officials for McCarthy Building Cos.--the lawsuit's chief defendant and the building's primary contractor--said they "strongly contest" the city attorney's allegations. "We are confident we will be proven correct in our position," said Mike Lenzen, corporate communications director for the St. Louis-based company.

The proposed school would have enrolled 800 to 1,200 students to help relieve Francis Polytechnic High, across the street from the Anthony Office Building on Arleta Avenue. Francis Poly has 3,600 students on a campus built for 3,000.

The new high school would have been the first in the Valley since 1971 and the first of 23 planned in the district for completion by 2007.

Some have criticized the speed with which the City Council approved the proposed sale of the building to L.A. Unified two years ago. The school district was under pressure to go forward quickly to get the school opened by July 2002, officials said.

Councilwoman Ruth Galanter had no knowledge of the mold when she resisted the potential sale of the building two years ago but had reservations about the how much research was done about the site's financial value, she said.

"Everyone was anxious for a good headline," said Galanter, whose new district includes the Anthony Office Building. In hindsight, she said, nobody should buy a building with mold.

School board member Korenstein said the deal was done quickly to help two groups with desperate needs: The DWP wanted the money and L.A. Unified wanted the space. The board, however, "needed a great deal of investigation on the property," she said.

Although the delays are a major setback, Board of Education President Caprice Young said the district must impose safeguards to prevent another situation like the Belmont Learning Complex.

"The reason we don't own [the Anthony Office Building] yet is because the environmental [study] is being done cautiously," Young said.

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