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Dodge Ball Is Campus Craze

A golf practice range at Los Angeles City College is shut down after buildings and a day-care center are struck.

March 26, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

They could have used some fore sight on this project.

That's what officials are admitting after shutting down a new, $5-million golf driving range at Los Angeles City College, where errant balls are peppering classroom buildings and the school's day-care center.

Closure of the privately owned range -- which comes just days after its grand opening -- could be permanent if its owner cannot figure out a way to keep golf balls from flying out, according to officials of the Los Angeles Community College District.

The Melrose Avenue practice range is built on leased college land. It features a three-level teeing platform that uses a vacuum system that automatically tees up balls to be hit. Golfers aim at a bull's-eye at the end of the 250-yard-long practice area.

But the target is directly behind the City College library building and next to the campus Child Development Center. Both have been repeatedly struck by balls hit over a 16-story fence.

The driving range has stirred controversy since construction began last year. Students complain that the site should have been turned into a parking lot. Neighbors grumble that the 27 poles that support the fence loom over the area's buildings and are an eyesore.

College district officials said that terms of their 10-year lease with developer Hee Cho required that golf balls do not leave the range.

"He's in violation of the agreement," said Larry Eisenberg, executive director of facilities, planning and development for the district.

The shutdown order was disclosed Wednesday as district trustees met at City College.

Sophomore Laura Lopez Hernandez, whose 3-year-old daughter attends the campus child center, said three golf balls were hit into the children's play area last week. One landed in the sandbox, but no one was injured.

"We as students have the right to know what actions, if any, are being taken to ensure our safety," she said. "In my opinion, college administrators have failed to provide a safe environment. We no longer feel free to learn. Instead, we fear for our safety and the safety of our children."

The board meeting was held at the campus faculty center, which is about 100 feet from the driving range bull's-eye. The faculty building itself has been hit by errant balls, according to campus workers. Outside the center, a lunch truck that parks there daily was struck by a ball that smashed a window, caterer Harry Hatikyan said.

Range operators tried without success to solve the wayward ball problem by exchanging regular range balls for a special "low-flight" type, Eisenberg said. But the three balls that landed in the day-care center were replacements, he said.

The range is now installing special net baffling in an effort to catch high balls. The district will require that the new netting be tested by professional golfers brought in when the college is closed, he said.

If balls continue to fly from the range, the entire site may have to be enclosed with netting, Eisenberg said. Even one escaped ball would put the range in violation of its lease and could lead to its permanent closure, he said.

At the Wednesday meeting, trustees heard complaints not only about the golf range but also the recent conversion of the school's historic Vermont Avenue sports stadium field into a paved parking lot.

"Buy out that 35-year golf lease now" and turn the driving range into a parking lot so the stadium can be used by college and community athletes, urged alumnus Duke Russell, who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers after playing baseball at the college in the 1940s.

The range has never been popular on campus. It was built in a dog-leg pattern around the child center. Students narrowly escaped injury in April when a crane hoisting one of the poles collapsed into the entryway of the college financial aid office.

Student trustee Stacey McMullen described the driving range as "the ugliest thing I've ever seen" and urged the board to consider removing it.

Board President Mona Field suggested that officials are attempting to do just that. "We are not ignoring your concerns. We are working on it," but can't talk publicly about it yet, she said.

Eisenberg, the district's development chief, was more skeptical. "I don't think there's any scenario in which [Cho] would voluntarily give up the site."

Trustees stressed to the crowd that construction of the driving range wasn't their idea.

"I didn't like the idea from the beginning," said trustee Warren T. Furutani, blaming City College administrators for pushing the project.

Campus administrators said they recommended the range as a moneymaker for the school. The lease pays $120,000 a year.

Cho could not be reached for comment. But a steady stream of disappointed golfers was being turned away this week from the range -- where $10 will buy 120 practice drives after 3 p.m.

"I think we're going to open next week," golf pro P.J. Pae told inquiring golfers.

And what about balls that sail off the range and onto the college campus?

"I don't know about that," she said.

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