Even as the University of California and California State University grapple with construction shutdowns, the Los Angeles Community College District on Wednesday awarded $400 million in new building contracts, the latest phase in a $5.7-billion construction program that experts describe as one of the biggest college public works projects in the nation.
The program, financed by bond measures approved by voters, most recently in November, is replacing often decrepit classrooms, labs and infrastructure at all nine district campuses with modern facilities featuring such advances as nuclear MRI imaging machines and computerized patient simulators.
Some of the planned improvements are more basic.
"Pierce College [in Woodland Hills] had no air-conditioning," said Larry Eisenberg, the district's executive director for facilities planning and development. "Can you imagine sitting in a classroom in 110-degree weather?"
Many of the new facilities are designed to train students for green jobs, including solar energy manufacturing, hydrogen fuel cell installation and nanotechnology, Eisenberg said.
As an added fillip, the buildings are being built to national sustainability and green standards; some, with green roofs and specially designed windows that create electricity, are expected to be zero-energy users, he said.
"It is in the top 5, if not the largest current higher education expansion project," said Cliff Brewis, senior director of editorial operations at McGraw Hill Construction, which forecasts construction trends. "They're at the front of the curve both in exploring new technologies and in challenging the industry . . . to achieve high levels of quality."
The district estimated that the contracts will provide more than 6,000 jobs.
Jack Keyser, chief economist for the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said the community colleges also play a key role in educating the Southern California workforce.
"A lot of them have struggled; they just don't get any respect," he said. "But they're educating the people who keep the economy going," he said, pointing to construction, computer technician and auto repair businesses as examples.
Students at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College said the building boom was particularly welcome as community colleges are often overlooked in the shadow of the four-year university systems.
"It looks upscale," fashion design student Talitha Marsette, 30, of Los Angeles said Wednesday afternoon, walking past the site of two new multistory buildings swathed in scaffolding.
"It makes me value my education more," said political science student Melissa Walker, 19. A new football field should help draw more students, she added.
The state last month ordered a 90-day suspension of public works projects, including many at UC and Cal State, after officials, hampered by California's budget crisis, failed to sell the bonds needed to keep cash flowing.
Chancellor Mark Drummond, who heads the Los Angeles Community College District, said his system's projects were not stymied by the economic collapse because its bonds, unlike those of the state, are backed by property taxes, not anticipated tax revenues. "We're not at all in the same boat as the state of California," he said.
Until recent years, because of a lack of funds, many two-year college campuses had undergone no significant improvements since the 1960s.
The new boom was brought on by approval in 2000 of Proposition 39, which dropped the percentage of the vote required to pass a local school bond measure from two-thirds to 55%.
The Los Angeles college district quickly followed up the ballot victory with bond measures in 2001 and 2003, Drummond said. Officials are now about 40% of the way through the overall construction program, spending about $10 million a day, he said. It was an easy matter after the November vote to gear up for new contracts, he added.
"Construction costs are getting lower; the deals are good now," Drummond said. "There was no sense to delay it."
Among the projects approved Wednesday were an $80-million wellness center, with a pool and athletic field at West Los Angeles College; $70 million in classroom, laboratory and parking facilities at Mission College in Sylmar; and a $28-million parking structure at Harbor College in Wilmington that includes photo-voltaic technology.