School Climate & Safety

Romer Puts New Hold On Troubled Belmont Site

By Joetta L. Sack — January 08, 2003 3 min read
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After the discovery of an earthquake fault line underneath two of the campus’s buildings—which has effectively killed the project as planned—even those who aren’t superstitious have been left wondering.

Superintendent Roy Romer announced last month that the project would once again be shelved, after studies could not determine the location and activity of the fault.

Construction of the much-needed, 3,600-student high school—believed to be the most expensive public school project in the country—was first stopped three years ago because of environmental toxins on the site, which is part of a former oil field in downtown Los Angeles.

Because California law dictates that schools cannot be built within 50 feet of an active earthquake fault line, officials of the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District say they have no choice but to scrap the current plans for the project.

So much dirt has already been cleared from the site, and the adjoining land is so heavily developed, that seismic experts were unable to find an adequate, undisturbed sample of dirt that would show whether the fault is active.

In 2000, with 60 percent of the Belmont construction completed at a cost of $154 million, the district suspended work because of concerns about toxic gases rising from the site.

Mr. Romer was appointed superintendent shortly afterward and called for studies to figure out how to salvage the project, if at all possible. The district school board authorized more studies on the revived project last March, and officials estimated it would cost an additional $67 million to $87 million to complete. (“Los Angeles Revives Beleaguered Belmont Project,” March 20, 2002.)

“I inherited this project and tried to save the $150 million already invested in it,” Mr. Romer said in a statement announcing the district’s latest decision. “But in our further investigations, we discovered this earthquake fault zone, which kills the project as now designed.”

“This is a tough, heartbreaking decision to make,” the superintendent said. However, he added, “the safety of our students must always be our number-one concern; if we cannot guarantee parents that their students will be safe, we cannot move forward.”

District Staff Criticized

But a member of the school board, Julie Korenstein, maintained that the district’s staff had repeatedly ignored her requests for a seismic study and had refused to order an investigation until Los Angeles County’s department of toxic substances demanded one earlier in 2002.

“I kept telling staff they had to do a seismic study, and they were very lax on it,” even after Mr. Romer decided to revive the project, said Ms. Korenstein, who has opposed the project from its inception because of environmental concerns.

“That particular school has been a catastrophe from day one,” she said of the Belmont Learning Center.

Contractors first suspected the presence of earthquake faults last May, when oil repressurization studies were being conducted on the site. Further reports located the fault, but the report last month was unable to conclude whether the fault was active.

Because of that uncertainty, district officials said they were forced to conclude that it was active.

Geologists at the California Institute of Technology, who studied the site, said that a minor fault underneath two of the site’s six buildings could cause up to a foot of movement during an earthquake. A structural-engineering firm concluded that such an action would cause violent shaking, and that the buildings could not be retrofitted to withstand such a quake.

Superintendent Romer and members of the school board pledged to continue to work with the community to figure out a different way to proceed.

Options may include figuring out whether any of the already constructed buildings can be salvaged, whether a portion of the site can still be used, or whether the district must find a new site for the project altogether.

Meanwhile, the district buses students in the Belmont Learning Center neighborhoods to other high schools, and is building four new high schools to help relieve overcrowding in all of the downtown schools.

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