by Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 6, 2008 -- Los Angeles school officials are starting over on a high school project in Maywood because the preferred site is so contaminated by industrial chemicals that it would cost at least $22 million to clean up, which would delay construction by as much as six years.
The cancellation, announced last week, means that the Los Angeles Unified School District will be forced to break its long-standing pledge to take all schools off year-round operation by 2012. The move also marks the first time that a project has been terminated because of environmental concerns since 2000, when the school board voted to abandon the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex.
About $5 million already has been spent on the Maywood site, but mostly for the school's design, which might be salvageable, L.A. Unified officials said. Finding a suitable location remains a challenge, said Roderick Hamilton, a regional development manager for the district.
"Most of Bell and Maywood are very dense," Hamilton said. "Any place you look at, you are probably displacing a large number of homes or businesses. It's been very difficult to find a site."
The Maywood site, at the corner of Walker Avenue and Randolph Street, appeared to be a good prospect when officials realized that a sign-making company was relocating. No homes and only a few businesses would have been affected. Other sites under consideration would have resulted in removing more than 100 households.
The site's industrial uses have included an auto shop and a paint-mixing factory.
"I wouldn't say there were surprises, but there were concerns that became apparent," said environmental program manager Tom Watson. Tests showed that contamination had reached into groundwater and may have migrated off-site, broadening the necessary cleanup. Addressing those issues would have cost between $22 million and $74 million, Watson said.
L.A. Unified had not yet purchased the property. In the years since the Belmont controversy, the district has performed detailed pre-purchase evaluations on proposed school sites.
Eight years ago, the school board ended the Belmont project west of downtown over concerns about its oil field location. Belmont was ultimately finished as the renamed Roybal Learning Center, which opened this fall. But delays more than doubled a price tag that soared past $400 million.
More recently, a school under construction in South Los Angeles had to be reconfigured -- at a cost of about $4 million -- when part of the original site was found to be contaminated.
Southeast Los Angeles County had its own Belmont-style environmental morass with a South Gate high school project. That effort also was abandoned in 2000 and, along with Belmont, contributed to the firing of then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias. And, as had happened with Belmont, that South Gate school is now on the way to being finished even though the environmental cleanup is expected to cost $30 million to $75 million.
In that instance, L.A. Unified had purchased the land.
"We couldn't sell that property in the condition it was in," Hamilton said. "We would be liable for the environmental condition forever and ever. It's less expensive to finish than to quit."
Both the South Gate site and the eventual Maywood-area site will allow overcrowded Huntington Park High and Bell High to return to a traditional two-semester schedule. The district has opened two additional high schools in that region since 2005.
Bell High still is straining under a 4,700-student enrollment and the shorter academic year that results from staggering semesters across the entire calendar.
"The community here does not know a traditional schedule," said Principal Onofre di Stefano. "The kids have never seen it, and the parents have never seen it. Almost all our rooms are used every single period. It's difficult to lower class size."
This year, the school experimented with an extended school day, with classes beginning as early as 6:30 a.m. and ending as late as 4:30 p.m. To manage a recent school-wide assembly, Di Stefano had to use the football field bleachers.
"This school was built in 1925," he said. "It takes a lot of wear and tear."