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Belmont building costs continue to soar

Its original price tag was $45 million. The final tab for the school, now called Vista Hermosa and set to open in 2008, will top $400 million.

July 08, 2007|Evelyn Larrubia and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

The Belmont Learning Complex was envisioned as one of a kind. It would combine the city's first new high school in nearly 30 years with housing and retail development -- extras that could raise money to help cap construction costs at about $45 million.

When the school opens in 2008, at least nine years behind schedule, it will indeed make history -- with its cost. The final tab will top $400 million, almost certainly claiming the title of America's most expensive high school, and there will be no retail or housing.

The school, now called Vista Hermosa, was conceived in a school district that at the time lacked the expertise to build schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District has since put together the nation's largest school construction program, but the hemorrhaging continues at Belmont. Recent work expected to cost about $111 million will reach nearly $200 million instead.

For all the money spent, "they probably could have built three more high schools, maybe four," said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area. "That's a very painful reality. I think 70% of the cost was not necessary."

Even so, Reyes strongly supports the effort, partly because the latest version of the project adds badly needed open space, including a soccer field and nature park, funded by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Just-retired school board member David Tokofsky, on the other hand, opposed Belmont for most of his 12 years in office.

"The town wants this to be finished," Tokofsky said. "But there hasn't been a forthright presentation of the costs."

The first phase of the project ended in January 2000 when the school board decided to stop building the half-finished school over safety concerns. The school sits atop an oil field, and a full environmental study hadn't been made before the start of construction. More than that, Belmont had come to symbolize school-district impotence and failure, making it a political liability.

Enter Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who became district superintendent later that year.

"I felt that school was salvageable," said Romer, who left the district last fall. "And it was important to get rid of that scar on the community's surface. It was a reminder of the school system's failure to work. My attitude was: You got to cure it, as long as it's feasible economically and safe."

And everyone agreed the school was needed. At the time, about 77,000 students in the area went to school on a year-round schedule. About 15,000 others were bused to less-crowded campuses outside of their neighborhood. Down the street from the shell of the abandoned complex, old, undersized Belmont High enrolled more than 5,300 students.

Romer told a wary school board that finishing Belmont would show that the much-maligned school system could fulfill its promise of building and modernizing hundreds of schools.

He brought in an outside panel that concluded the school could be built to be safe if a fan and venting system were installed to prevent hazardous oil-field gases from accumulating inside buildings. Buildings all over Los Angeles, including some schools, face similar problems in this oil-rich basin. Romer also argued that it would be cheaper to finish Belmont -- for no more than $80 million -- than to sell the land and start anew elsewhere.

He got approval from the school board in March 2002 to hire a nascent nonprofit that would finish the project for $87 million.

The restart stalled, however, with the discovery of an earthquake fault on the site. After months of study, analysts determined students would be safe as long as buildings did not straddle the fault.

In 2003, the board again approved the project.

But the delay had added costs -- for starters, the chosen developers were paid about $2 million for their efforts, which ultimately came to naught when the project was redesigned and put out to bid again. Then there was the expense of more than a mile of trenches, which were needed to analyze the seismic risk.

The recalculated price rose to $111 million of which $78 million would be hard construction expenses, which include construction materials and manual labor. Officials had determined this estimate by multiplying the square footage by the going rate the school system was paying to build and modernize other schools, plus a few million dollars for demolition, surveys and other small contracts.

When the project went out to bid two years later, the results were nowhere near the estimated amounts. Hard construction costs alone swelled by $66 million over 2003 numbers. Officials said the difference was caused in part by their decision to add more square footage, but mostly by a wild run-up in material and labor costs during that time.

The board accepted the explanation and again gave the green light.

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