A front-end loader works on part of the campus at the new South Gate high school.… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
More than 25 years after it was envisioned, a new South Gate high school is set to open this week on property that became known for toxic contamination, contributed to the downfall of the school district's top official and then slipped from public attention.
South Region High School No. 9 sparkles these days, with compact, understated modern buildings atop tons of clean, imported soil. There's hardly a reminder of the toxic legacy — until one glances across the street to the south side of the 36-acre property.
There, bulldozers still were at work last week filling 30-foot-deep excavations from which contaminated soil had been removed. Nearby, great mounds of dirt, laid out in rows, were wrapped in plastic while volatile organic compounds were vacuumed out of them.
Those south parcels will remain fenced off until they can be finished as additional playing fields. In the meantime, the school will open Tuesday as a new point of pride in the L.A. school district's $19.5-billion construction program that will have delivered 131 new schools and thousands of renovation projects by next year.
"This is a legacy property — perhaps the last that fell into the category of sites we acquired before the school district was doing environmental due diligence," said Edward Morelan, an administrator with the Office of Environmental Health & Safety for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"We're kind of closing out an era," Morelan said.
The school system would never purchase such a property today, said officials, who also insisted that the campus is safe, pointing out that state regulators supervised the cleanup.
The district decided to acquire the land in the 1980s, when nearly every local school was operating year-round to accommodate more students — and still, thousands were bused out of neighborhoods to campuses in some cases far away.
South Gate officials understood the district's urgent need for classroom space, so many were willing to sacrifice an industrial zone that contributed about $200,000 a year to the city's revenue base.
Soon, however, the project became entangled with the issue of the Belmont Learning Complex, just west of downtown Los Angeles, which also had serious environmental problems. Some officials cited alleged mismanagement of the two projects as leading to the forced resignation of then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias in late 1999. The school board decided to terminate both projects early in 2000.
After contentious debate, Belmont was revived and finally opened in 2008 as the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center. It had became one of the most expensive high schools ever built because of environmental issues as well as construction delays and other problems.
The South Gate project was quietly resumed in 2005. The move made sense, officials said, in part because L.A. Unified, as the property owner, would have to do a cleanup whether it kept the land or sold it. (The district is pursuing legal action against previous owners to recoup some costs.)
District officials said it took more than a decade to determine where and how badly the South Gate property had become contaminated by such businesses as foundries and pesticide manufacturers. Once the scope was determined, "the actual cleanup process was pretty straightforward," Morelan said.
And expensive — about $22 million of the $214 million total for the campus, one of the district's pricier endeavors. In all, the district removed 112,000 cubic yards of soil and cleaned 12,000 cubic yards.
L.A. Unified also has committed to cleaning contaminated groundwater, which is pervasive in the South Gate school area. Early critics also worried about a gas pipeline and a natural gas pipeline that pass just outside the east perimeter, but the risks were judged to be minimal, officials said. Part of the area remains industrial. A metal polishing plant borders the faculty parking lot.
At a recent orientation, some parents said they were curious but not especially worried about the ongoing cleanup across the street.
At the moment, the new South Gate campus, like some others in L.A. Unified, is underenrolled.
District enrollment has declined sharply over several years, while other nearby new schools and independently operated charter campuses have been attracting students.
And some families want to remain at the suddenly less-crowded, fixed-up older schools that have generations of tradition.
"This school is quite an addition to our community," said South Gate Mayor W.H. (Bill) De Witt. But, he added: "I'm not even sure the school is needed at this point."
The campus houses three schools. The International Studies Learning Center offers students an array of foreign languages and concurrent enrollment in community college.
There's also a performing arts academy and a school with a science, math and engineering focus. The principals at these schools are still accepting students, saying they can offer a beautiful campus and a dedicated faculty.
"This campus has no colors, no mascot and no name," said Principal Carla Barrera-Ortiz, who heads the science school. "We tell students and parents that this is your opportunity to get your voice heard. It's up to us to establish a new legacy."