August 30, 2007 - From the August, 2007 issue

Sam Hall Kaplan Laments LAUSD's $400 Million Belmont ‘Fiasco'

Tales of woe related to the unforeseen increase in the cost of construction have lost their shock value in recent years, but an element of tragedy emerges when considering the lost opportunities congregating around public building projects in the region. In the following piece, written exclusively for TPR, Sam Hall Kaplan laments what he considers the LAUSD's worst offense of mismanagement and misunderstanding, Vista Hermosa.


Sam Hall Kaplan

Call it Vista Hermosa or by its original name, the Belmont Learning Complex, or simply "the fiasco": driving by the long anticipated public high school at First Street and Beaudry Avenue makes me wince.

I view the 2,400 seat school with its estimated $400 million plus price tag not only as a design and development disaster, but also as a symbol of the unfortunate lack of will of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the megalomania and demagoguery of select politicians, and the indolence of the local media.

Given its sad history of starts and stops, soaring costs making it arguably the most expensive high school in the nation, and the abandonment of the original mixed use concept, I also feel it reflects the unfortunate and continued stunted growth of Los Angeles as a world-class city.

Vista Hermosa will end up as an ignominious suburban school in an urban setting, which, while serving the education needs of a burgeoning Downtown and adjacent Westlake population, lends little urbanity to the community and no distinction to the city's public architecture.

If anything, the inclusion of housing and retail into the site just west of the Harbor Freeway in the original Belmont High design was indeed prescient, coming at a time in 1993 when real estate prices in the area were depressed and Downtown's potential for housing was just a paper dream of the CRA, the Central City Association, and the architecture firm of Killefer Flammang.

The latest news that the school is scheduled to open next year, in the fall of 2008, a shameful nine years after its scheduled completion, is of little municipal solace, except, of course, to the persevering parents and enduring community activists who fought for its construction.

Unfortunately, when their predominately Latino voices banded together in 1999 in a so-called "Build Belmont Coalition," they were all but ignored by an undiscerning media, which, in a quest for a more controversial story line, preferred the histrionics of headline-hungry politicians, principally then-Assemblyman Richard Katz and State Senator Tom Hayden.

Feeding them a litany of safety concerns, some real, some magnified, but all solvable, were several unions with a gripe against the project's developer, the Kajima Construction Company.

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Their exaggerated charges did indeed grab the headlines and sway the desk-bound editorial writers, whose musings consequently froze the district into inaction and then panic, like a deer first caught in a headlight, only to bolt into traffic.

The District was further vexed by some of its own board members at the time, in particular the irrepressible David Tokofsky. A teacher with no design and development experience, but possessing a boundless ego, Tokofsky added an unwelcome confusion to the few professionals then struggling to address the safety concerns and move the project forward.

Also hindering the search for solutions was an internal witch hunt employing a self-important cadre of rapacious lawyers and investigators. Meanwhile, the actual construction faltered under often-conflicting daily directives and change orders, turning the project into a honey pot for a host of mercenary contractors and their avaricious subs, and a money pit for the public.

If when reflecting on the Belmont fiasco I seem a little irate, let me note (in the interest of full disclosure) that I briefly was one of those design consultants, specifically promoting the development of joint-use schools on limited inner city sites.

In a past life, before coming to the Southland as the design critic for the L.A Times, I had been, among other things, the director of development of the New York City Educational Construction Fund, a public benefit corporation pioneering the concept of joint use. During my tenure there in the 1970s, the Fund successfully completed 13 schools, including three major high schools, by combining them with an array of ambitious housing and commercial projects at challenging inner-city sites, generating substantial savings.

If the concept could work in New York City, with its infamously bureaucratic Board of Education and intransigent school and building unions, I figured it could work in L.A., then, as now, morphing from a collection of suburbs into a city. Encouraging me was the emergence then of the New Schools Better Neighborhoods effort, which, under the leadership of David Abel, was promoting education facilities as a fulcrum for community change.

If the media was naïve in accepting the story line of the self-serving rogue environmentalists and pandering politicians, so I was in believing the District wanted to change its bureaucratic ways and pursue an innovative development program. When my recommendations concerning how the Belmont project could be saved and other projects pursued were ignored, and my short-term contract expired, I bailed.

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To be sure, the problems of designing and building schools are many: the dearth of available land, shifting and confusing environmental considerations, rigid state regulations, a mindset that favors suburban standards, and a warped local approval process.

Not helping, at least when I labored at the District, was the inflexibility of a cabal of persevering pedagogues booted out of teaching and into facilities planning, where, following Peter's Principle, they had risen to their level of incompetence.

It was they, as well as an ingenuous school board susceptible to poor advice and a prejudicial public, that I feel hung the Belmont project around the city's collective neck like a millstone. It is still there today.

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.