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Factoring in schools

A massive LAUSD building effort may boost interest in surrounding neighborhoods.

May 16, 2004|Darrell Satzman | Special to The Times

When Jennifer and Marcus Errico purchased their home last year in Pasadena for just under $450,000, they had two things on their minds: affordability and steering clear of Los Angeles Unified School District.

It was much the same story for Giselle and Craig Arteaga-Johnson, who in April bought a $326,000 Pasadena house. Both couples hope to start families in the next year or two, and concerns about where their kids might someday be learning the alphabet and social skills figured prominently in their decisions on where to buy.

"Education and school systems were at the top of our list," said Marcus Errico, news director for E! Online. "One reason we didn't look in Eagle Rock is we were terrified of our kids going to LAUSD schools."

In Los Angeles County's overheated housing market, where just about anything not straddling a fault line has soared in value, real estate experts say that, all things being equal, quality schools accelerate home sales and appreciation. And although precise dollar amounts are difficult to gauge, brokers have been successfully selling test scores and superior schools for years in communities such as Burbank, Glendale and Calabasas. Now a fleet of new and improved schools may give a similar boost to LAUSD neighborhoods.

Quality schools are considered a cornerstone of healthy neighborhoods, according to G.U. Krueger, vice president for market research at IHP Capital Partners, an Irvine-based real estate venture capital firm.

"The most important variable for people when they are looking for housing is the perception of the schools," Krueger said. "It doesn't matter if the housing stock is new or old, people see schools as a reflection of communities."

Conversely, a widespread aversion to LAUSD -- borne of low test scores, managerial fiascoes such as the long-delayed $200-million Belmont Learning Complex and facilities in disrepair -- hasn't helped market homes in parts of that district.

Long hammered by local politicians, the district has alienated two generations of parents as a result of substandard performance and inefficiency. But test scores have been inching up in recent years, and the fractiousness that once characterized the school board has somewhat abated.

An unprecedented school building boom is underway that will deliver state-of-the-art campuses in neighborhoods from Panorama City to Pico Union and Sun Valley to El Sereno. The push has already resulted in new schools opening in Silver Lake, Van Nuys and Los Angeles, to name a few.

Tapping roughly $9 billion from state and local bonds passed between 1997 and March, the district has set out to build 160 new schools and add 162,000 new student seats by 2012, while at the same time improving dozens of other campuses districtwide.

Phase 1, funded by the passage of Measure BB seven years ago, is plowing forward with a goal of 80 new schools by 2007 to relieve overcrowding and cut down on year-round schedules in the district's most densely populated areas. So far, 23 projects have been completed and nearly 100 others have broken ground.

Highlights of the first phase include an $87-million arts high school next to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the $111-million Vista Hermosa High School, also downtown, which will accommodate 2,600 students in four distinct campus communities and include an adjacent park. The arts campus is scheduled to open in 2006; Vista Hermosa in 2007.

Overall, the district's task represents a public works project more on the scale of a small nation than a school district, and some question whether LAUSD has the wherewithal to pull it off. And even if the building goes well, there is no guarantee that the new schools will do any better than existing ones at churning out accomplished students.

On the other hand, the lure of shiny new campuses, with new textbooks, air-conditioning, clean bathrooms and perhaps even reinvigorated teachers is sure to play a role in the ever-shifting dynamics of neighborhood desirability in Los Angeles.

"LAUSD didn't necessarily have a distinguished history of success in the facilities construction area," said Jim McConnell, chief facilities executive for the district, and a former Navy captain with the Seabees. "But the culture is changing."

For Phase 1, the district has used the power of eminent domain to force owners of about 300 pieces of commercial real estate and 227 single-family homes to sell, according to McConnell. The district needed to acquire about 800 parcels of land, roughly 440 acres, for that phase alone.

Although the use of eminent domain acquisitions has drawn criticism from some, the district hopes benefits to remaining residents will outweigh the negatives.

"Most of the neighborhoods we're building in desperately want us to build new schools," McConnell said. "And it's amazing to see how quickly they become centers of the community."

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