Scarcity of Property Is Growing Obstacle to Building Schools

By Joetta L. Sack — March 24, 2004 7 min read
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It was described as an insurmountable task: finding 440 acres of land in the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles on which 80 much-needed schools could be built.

Knowing there likely would not be any large, vacant lots with “For Sale” signs, the chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles Unified School District, James A. McConnell Jr., dispatched a team of about 100 employees and consultants to look for any possible lot, vacant building, or structure that could be torn down.

“The first thing they did was go out and canvas every square inch of the city, and catalogued every conceivable site for a school,” he said. “Then, we just very aggressively went after land.”

Land Needs

The Council of Educational Facility Planners International recommends that a school site should:

  • Be large enough to meet present and future needs;
  • Be easily accessible and conveniently located for present and future populations;
  • Be removed from undesirable businesses, industry, traffic, and natural hazards;
  • Be well-landscaped and suitable for special instructional needs;
  • Have well-equipped playgrounds and athletic fields that are separated from streets and parking areas;
  • Have adequate amenities for pedestrians, including sidewalks and crosswalks; and
  • Have a stable topography that will not erode.

Most states mandate or recommend the minimum amount of acreage for schools, according to the CEFPI. Typical specifications would be:

  • Elementary school: 10 acres plus one acre for every 100 students;
  • Middle school: 20 acres plus one acre for every 100 students; and
  • High school: 30 acres plus one acre for every 100 students.

SOURCE: Council of Educational Facility Planners International

In addition to acquiring a property—which sometimes required a court order to force an owner to sell—the district conducted studies to ensure the land wasn’t environmentally contaminated or too close to an earthquake fault line.

Three years later, the 750,000-student district has acquired 95 percent of the land it needs—at least for the first of three phases of a major construction initiative that will house the system’s rapidly growing enrollment and ease the severe crowding in most of its existing schools.

While Los Angeles is an extreme example, a lack of land for new schools and additions is a common problem across the country, particularly in urban and fast-growing areas.

To confront the problem, districts are building multistory schools and converting existing buildings to schools, said Barbara C. Worth, an assistant director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“What’s really growing are the public-private partnerships,” in which districts persuade housing developers to donate land or help build schools, she added.

In addition, it’s becoming more common for local governments to demand that developers donate land or money to help build schools as part of the approval of their projects. Other districts in fast-growing areas have bought land on speculation while the cost is relatively modest. And in severe cases, districts that have the power of eminent domain—the right of governments to force owners to sell their land to them at fair market value for public purposes—have taken homes, businesses, farms, and other properties to build schools.

Land Options

Planning for the future can be vital to a district’s land needs. As a result, many districts are buying plots of land, or in some cases, properties adjacent to existing schools, that could become school grounds in years to come.

School officials in Wake County, N.C., recently began “land banking” in outer suburban areas, but are still searching for suitable sites in other, already-developed areas for six elementary schools and a pre-K center that they hope to open by 2008. The 109,000-student district expects about 50,000 new students in the next 15 years.

B. Clint Jobe, the district’s director for real estate services, said that the district competes with private developers for a limited number of acceptable lots, but often does not have the same buying power.

“Those individuals are able to pay a higher price,” he said of developers. “We don’t have the luxury of being able to say, ‘We don’t think this particular property or location for the price that’s being asked is acceptable.’”

Besides buying land for future use, the Wake County district has tried to work with developers to buy land at reduced prices. The district has also tried to persuade local government officials to set aside land for schools, Mr. Jobe said. That approach, though, can become politically charged, he said.

Several smaller districts in the outer suburbs of Chicago also have bought land speculatively. The 2,100- student Mundelein High School District recently bought 92 acres in an area that is expected to be heavily developed in coming years. The district expects to have about 4,000 students by 2020 and will need to build another high school in about 10 years.

“We saved money, but also, land is being snatched up so fast by developers that we knew we had to buy now,” said Kelley Happ, the district’s director of public information. Because the district will not need to build the new high school for at least several years, officials were able to negotiate a four-year payment plan to ease the burden of the cost, she added.

Taking Land

The right of eminent domain or condemnation of land for public use is usually employed as a last resort when a district needs to build a school in a particular area and sees no new or better alternatives. It also can be an intensely emotional issue.

While it’s not common, it’s also not surprising to hear about eminent domain in densely populated areas such as Southern California. But such power is also used in smaller towns.

Dalton, Ga., a city of 25,000 just below the Tennessee border that is best known as a hub of carpet manufacturing plants, might not appear to face challenges in finding land for schools.

Yet officials in the 5,700-student Dalton school district threatened to use its power of eminent domain last year to acquire enough land to build an elementary school in a densely populated area.

The only available open land in the city was either in outlying or industrial areas, said Don Amonett, the assistant superintendent for operations.

When the property owners—many of whom were elderly and had lived in their homes for decades—first learned of the district’s plans, most were angry, he said. But the district worked closely with them to negotiate fair prices for their properties and helped with relocation plans, such as finding apartments in senior housing complexes.

In the end, the district used eminent domain just twice, mainly as a legal formality. The district paid a total of $2.2 million for the 34 parcels with about 15 houses and two churches. It now plans to open the elementary school in the fall of 2005.

“It’s not fun when you end up taking property away from someone,” Mr. Amonett said. “We made a conscious effort of working with them individually, and overall it turned out positive.”

Site Specs

The Council of Educational Facility Planners recommends that districts have sites of at least 10 acres each for elementary schools, 20 acres for middle schools, and 30 acres for high schools. Some states mandate or offer similar guidelines for school sites.

Many of those states are willing to give leeway, however, to districts that are unable to find or afford large plots of land.

The Los Angeles district has built high schools on as little as five acres. “The days of the 30-acre high school campus are long gone in L.A.,” Mr. McConnell said.

Building on small plots of land has pushed the creativity of architects to design schools that fit the land’s constraints but still offer all the amenities that the schools need.

In the Los Angeles system, which does not use prototype or cookie-cutter plans for its new schools, parking is often underground, schools are typically four or five stories high, and many playgrounds are on rooftops.

As part of its quest to build new schools, the district has also bought older buildings that can be retrofitted as schools. One of the more unusual examples of that approach is the Ambassador Hotel, a swanky hangout for celebrities in the 1930s and 1940s and the site of the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

The district is weighing its options for the structure and the 24 acres it occupies.

Plans call for an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school to relieve cramped conditions in other area schools. The five plans now being considered range from restoring and reusing most of the hotel to demolishing it and rebuilding. Restoration would be more costly, up to $400 million, while the new structures would cost about $286 million.

Facilities officials are reviewing public comments and will make a recommendation to the school board in late April, said Shannon Johnson, a spokeswoman for the district’s facilities division.

“There’s people on all sides of the argument,” she said. While many have called for preserving the grand old structure, she added, “that area is one of the most densely populated areas of all the region.”

“The need for a modern school facility is extremely compelling,” she added, “and there are a lot of people who understand that need.”

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