After years of delays and false starts, the project seemed to be nearing completion, finally.
It was the spring of 2009, and construction crews at Los Angeles City College appeared to have accomplished the neat trick of building a track and athletic field on the roof of a new parking structure. Field boundaries had been marked in white on the artificial turf. Bleachers had been installed, and workers were laying the track.
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It was easy to imagine that students would soon be playing soccer or running sprints against a backdrop of pencil-thin palms, chocolate-colored hills and the Hollywood sign.
It was not to be. In June of that year, work again came to a stop, with the project in a sorry state: The artificial turf was covered with ridges, and the track had cracked and curled away from its base.
Nearly two years later, the facilities are still unfinished. College officials say they hope to complete repairs by the fall. The cost of the garage and rooftop sports deck, meanwhile, has climbed from $42 million to more than $51 million, records show.
The project is a sharp illustration of the costly missteps in the Los Angeles Community College District's $5.7-billion rebuilding program, financed by bonds that taxpayers will be repaying, with interest, for the next 40 years.
City College, the flagship of the nine-campus district, has a legacy of excellence in competitive sports. So when the construction program began in 2001, college leaders decided to replace aging sports facilities, some of which dated to the 1930s.
A decade later, several of the college's signature athletic venues have been flattened to make room for a new science building, a library and a child-care center. But the replacement facilities have yet to be completed, and a review of contracts, district e-mails and other records shows that poor planning and design and construction errors have cost taxpayers millions.
Among the delayed projects is a health and physical education complex. College officials originally planned to build it next to the parking structure-sports deck. Then they decided to move the building to a different spot — but only after $1.8 million had been spent on designs for the first site.
Those plans were discarded, and the district hired architects to draft new designs for an additional $1.9 million.
The original phys-ed complex was to have opened in 2008. The redesigned building is expected to be ready in the fall of 2012, at the earliest.
In the meantime, athletes and physical education students have made do with rundown, antiquated facilities. Without a track, students have practiced sprinting on a gymnasium roof ringed by cyclone fencing. For a time, they used a makeshift course on a construction site.
College President Jamillah Moore said the problems were more than offset by the successful completion of new academic buildings.
She said the college has maintained a full physical education program in its remaining athletic facilities and in rented space off campus.
"Any major capital bond program such as ours is going to have a few challenges along the way," Moore said. "The number of success stories far outweighs the challenges … and the campus is only going to get better."
Georgia Mercer, president of the college system's Board of Trustees, said the district rightly put new classrooms and laboratories ahead of athletics.
"Should we have scrapped plans for the many new, sorely needed academic buildings that will serve our community for decades to avoid a temporary dislocation of sports facilities?" she asked in an e-mail.
Larry Eisenberg, the official in charge of the district's construction program, said that in the end the campus will have "much better" sports facilities.
Hayward Nishioka, a physical education instructor and former men's athletic director at City College, said he'll believe it when he sees it. He expressed disgust at "all the money that went into projects that were held up, projects that went bad."
"And our kids are paying for it," he said, "by not having the facilities they deserve."
Decision limits options
The problems stem largely from the trustees' decision in 2000 to lease the last major piece of vacant land at City College to an entrepreneur who built a commercial driving range there.
Majestic Golf Land took up nearly four acres at the southern end of the East Hollywood campus. The property was enclosed in netting strung from towering poles to keep golf balls from flying onto the campus. In eight years, the business generated $820,000 in rental income and fees.
When the construction program began in 2001, college leaders decided to provide much-needed parking and new athletic facilities on five acres wrapped around the driving range. The track, field and bleachers would be built atop a new 950-space garage, with a P.E. complex next door.