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School in Light-Rail's Path a Study in Complexity of Transit Planning

Proposal to raze a recreation room touches off costly sequence of mandatory upgrades.

November 26, 2005|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Little Ramona High School has long prided itself on being an oasis of calm for teenage girls.

For more than 50 years, the alternative school has been a haven for pregnant teenagers, wards of the court and others in danger of dropping out. Rows of infants sleep in cribs inside the school's child-care center. The courtyard blooms with zinnias and daffodils planted by students, and girls clutching notebooks stroll past bird feeders suspended from trees.

But the tranquil East Los Angeles campus is in the path of the future Metro Gold Line Eastside extension, and a looming battle over construction threatens to delay the $898-million project's 2009 opening.

To make way for tracks and a train station, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to raze a single building at the school -- a recreation room -- and pay for a replacement to be built across a street. School officials, however, say the demolition would irreparably damage the 160-student campus, and they seek amends that would require building a new school.

"There are all these ripple effects," said Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer, citing the requirements of the state education code. "If you touch a building on a campus, you have to upgrade the fire alarm. Once you dismantle a fire alarm you have to redo the fire alarm for the whole school. That requires digging into walls, and you get into lead and asbestos."

"These are not our requirements," Gritzner added. "They are state requirements."

This means the school's 13 pink-trimmed, bungalow-style classrooms -- now at 800 to 850 square feet each -- must be rebuilt to current seismic standards and expanded to 960 square feet.

MTA officials were also shocked to hear that the 3,000-square-foot recreation room at the all-girls campus -- originally built as an elementary school with facilities dating to 1914 -- would need to be replaced with a 6,400 square-foot, state-of-the-art, high-school-size gymnasium with a separate locker room, showers and urinals for boys because state code requires accommodating both genders.

"We need to mitigate impacts, but I don't think we should construct a brand new high school," said Rick Thorpe, the MTA's construction chief. "The original intent [of replacing one building] became an open checkbook, and that's unacceptable to the MTA."

A new school would cost an estimated $33 million to $40 million. MTA officials said they would pay no more than $20 million, as construction would also require them to replace a school tennis court and grassy field.

The MTA and the school district have been discussing light-rail construction on the Ramona campus for several years. District officials say the MTA previously agreed to pay for a new school. The MTA says no such deal has been reached.

At a recent MTA meeting, Gloria Molina, a Los Angeles County supervisor and transit agency director, denounced district officials for "trying to put their tab of building schools in the inner city" on the transit agency's back.

To broker a compromise, Molina and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who heads the MTA -- recently met with Romer about a proposal to have the district pay an estimated $8 million toward the cost of a new school, sources said.

The proposal has not yet been presented to the MTA or the school board for approval. Molina and Villaraigosa could not be reached for comment.

If the two sides can't come to an agreement soon, MTA officials fear it could delay the completion of the six-mile line from Union Station to the Eastside. Every month of construction delay would cost the project an additional $2 million.

Last month, the MTA board authorized spending $100,000 a month to develop a backup plan to route the light-rail line around the 2.6-acre campus instead. But that plan would probably run into roadblocks too.

The alternative plan would have the tracks go down the middle of Indiana Street, eliminating curbside parking and leaving one lane for cars in each direction.

"That is not going to work for us," said James Okazaki, assistant general manager of the city's Department of Transportation, who added that he would urge the City Council to reject such a plan. "A single lane is not enough to allow people to back out of driveways, the Fire Department to go down streets. We don't want to shortchange the community by having a substandard street."

Neighbors said they would also oppose the move.

"It's going to be a lot of traffic, and this is already a busy street," said Aracely Alvarez, a 37-year-old homemaker. As cars and buses whooshed past the chain-link fence surrounding her small frontyard facing Indiana, she shifted her 1-year-old son to her other hip. "We have a lot of children in this neighborhood," Alvarez said. "[Trains] could be dangerous."

Some at Ramona wonder why their campus was targeted.

"We have girls who just don't fit in anywhere else. If it were some big fancy school, they'd probably look at us in a different way," said Barbara Harrison, an assistant principal. "Think about it. If you put a train station in the middle of a school, would you have a school?"

Arlene Carmona, an 11th-grader, said she hopes the outside world realizes how special her school is. "They should leave the school alone. I like it the way it is," said Carmona, who plans to become a cosmetologist. But, she added, "if they want to build new things and make it better, it would be cool too."

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Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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