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L.A. Unified project combines preschool and apartments

The district and a developer collaborate on a plan to build an education center in Glassell Park with affordable housing for teachers, police officers and nurses.

November 27, 2010|By Morris Newman, Los Angeles Times

It's not surprising that the Los Angeles Unified School District would build a preschool next to a new apartment building.

What is surprising, however, is that the early education center and the 50-unit apartment complex are both being built on land owned by L.A. Unified in a dense urban neighborhood between Atwater Village and Highland Park. And district officials say they hope teachers will rent units in the new affordable-housing development.

The Glassell Park project is an example of joint use in which two different organizations — sometimes two public agencies, or a public agency and a private developer — combine to build projects that would be difficult and costly to build separately.

In the past, developers have built apartment complexes in cooperation with medical clinics, swimming pools, libraries and other public facilities.

In Glassell Park, the district is working with Abode Communities of Los Angeles, which began construction this fall on 50 units of affordable apartments on a 1.5-acre site that also includes the early education center. The site formerly served as a parking lot for Glassell Park Elementary School, located across the street.

Between the preschool building and the apartment complex will be a 10,000-square-foot "outdoor learning classroom," which will provide space for young children to play and take classes. During non-school hours, the playground is expected to be open for apartment residents.

The Glassell Park project, in fact, is the first effort by the school system to combine education facilities and housing on district-owned land.

Former school board member David Tokofsky championed the project when it was approved in 2001. (The burst of new construction undertaken by the school district in the last decade is probably one reason for the long delay in building the school and apartment complex, which became a lower priority.)

"With health benefits and pensions for teachers both at risk of getting hammered, we thought that the offer of affordable housing could be another way of attracting new teachers," Tokofsky said.

The apartments are considered workforce housing — intended for teachers, police officers, nurses and others who earn a median income but find themselves unable to afford housing in many neighborhoods. "What if we could offer units in say, Venice or Westwood at a great rate?" Tokofsky said.

Although the Glassell Park units are available for all qualifying households, L.A. Unified plans at least three other projects with apartments in which priority will be given to teachers seeking affordable housing, although the homebuilder has the right to rent units to non-teachers if district staffers do not lease all the units.

For the housing developer, the Glassell Park complex "allows us to bring together different types of funding sources, so we can aggregate enough money to make both projects happen," Abode President Robin Hughes said.

Funds for building the Early Elementary Center came from voter-approved bond measures, according to a district representative.

Although the school district has not contributed funding to the housing project, the district helped finance a $7-million underground garage that will provide parking for the preschool, the apartment complex and the existing Glassell Park Elementary School.

To finance the underground garage, the school district raised the money, in part, from charging the apartment builder about $20,000 annually for a 66-year ground lease while collecting the remaining money from state and local sources, said Sam Mistrano, a former senior facilities project manager for the district.

Although underground parking is costly, neither the preschool nor the apartment complex could be built without it because the 1.5-acre site is too small for both the new buildings and surface parking.

For school staff, the project is expected to offer the benefits of affordable housing and a location that is close to work. The district, Mistrano said, "has a high staff turnover in that area, and we believe that the housing might be able to keep teachers at their schools longer."

metrodesk@latimes.com

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