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L.A. Board Votes to Finish Troubled Belmont Project

May 23, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

Six years and $175 million since construction began on the Belmont Learning Center, the Los Angeles Board of Education narrowly voted Thursday to put another $111 million into completing the troubled high school, which sits above an old oil field and a recently discovered earthquake fault.

The 4-3 vote called for demolishing two school buildings directly above the fault line. Four other partly built structures would be kept and finished, two new ones would be added elsewhere on the property and a community park would be created.

The project already is the most expensive high school in state history. Construction began in 1997, but was halted three years later amid worries about underground gases from former oil wells. It was stalled again last year by seismic concerns.

Current district figures suggest the $286-million total projected cost would have been enough to build two other high schools and a middle school.

But supporters of the new plan say it is the best way to address the complicated environmental and earthquake issues facing the 35-acre property and the most efficient way to ease school crowding in neighborhoods near downtown. The reconfigured high school complex would serve 2,600 students, about 1,900 fewer than originally envisioned.

An environmental impact report still must be completed. But Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said the high school would be completed within four years. "This is over the hump. This is going to happen," he said.

In the community Thursday, reaction was divided between those who badly want a new school to replace the existing Belmont High School nearby and others who remain suspicious of the district's promises of safety.

In front of the existing Belmont High, which is slated to become a middle school, students gathered around a depiction of a modern, cream-colored school building next to a spacious green park with a pond. They praised the design, saying it was "cool," "bomb" and "tight."

"It's like a hotel. How long is it going to take?" asked Cindy Flores, 15. When she found out, she rolled her eyes. "We won't even get to go to that school. Go ahead and build it, but it won't help me."

Virginia Leyva, the mother of a Belmont freshman, said that a new campus would help relieve crowding, but that she remains worried about the earthquake fault. "It's dangerous because it is so close to the kids," she said.

Earlier this year, after disclosure of the fault line, Romer had suggested that all six of the unfinished buildings be sold or used for purposes other than a school. A smaller school should be built on bedrock at another portion of the property just west of the Harbor Freeway, he said at the time.

This week, he reversed his position and backed a proposal by board member Jose Huizar and supported by other public officials, including Mayor James K. Hahn, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

Under that proposal, called the "Vista Hermosa" or Beautiful View after the proposed hilltop park, two unfinished buildings -- one for classrooms and one for administration -- would be razed. They represent about a third of the original building plan. The other four existing buildings would be completed. They meet state safety rules, officials said, because they are more than 50 feet from the fault. As previously planned, underground gases would be sealed off and vented.

A student union building, with an auditorium, cafeteria and library, would be added, and a space once planned for retail stores would be made into a parents center. Another structure, for a 500-seat magnet-like academy, also would be constructed, for a total of 2,600 student seats.

Between 10 and 12 acres at the northern part of the property would be reserved for parkland with a fishing pond. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy would develop and administer the park and pay a nominal rent.

Money for the construction would come mainly from districtwide developer fees. The $20 million for the academy portion might be paid with bond money, officials said.

But the environmental and cost issues that long have divided the school board emerged again Thursday. Board members Marlene Canter, Genethia Hudley-Hayes, Mike Lansing and Huizar voted for the project. Julie Korenstein, David Tokofsky and board President Caprice Young voted against it.

Young, who lost a bid for reelection in March and will leave office July 1, said she was reluctant to approve something over which she will have no oversight.

"I'm not going to be here and I'm worried that people will be swept up in the vision of what is going to be a beautiful school and park, and not pay attention to making it safe," she said. "A thousand things could go wrong. I mean, this is Belmont, after all."

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