Thursday, November 29, 2007
Central High’s ‘Dirt’y Little Secret
How a High School Site Got Stolen, Buried and Recovered
By Margaret Arnold
Exclusive to the Arroyo Seco Journal
Several years ago, Glassell Park resident Alisa Smith attended a meeting about a Caltrans maintenance facility proposed for the north end of the former Taylor Yard railroad site off of San Fernando Road. Caltrans needed to relocate the facility from North Hollywood because that site was needed for a school.
Didn’t Northeast Los Angeles need a school too, Smith wondered? Why was North Hollywood getting a school while NELA was getting a truck yard?
Jump ahead to November 19 of this year. Smith was sitting in a courtroom as a judge awarded that same parcel of land—Taylor Yard Parcel F—to the Los Angeles Unified School District. It is to become LAUSD Central Region High School #13.
The court decision represented a hard-fought victory for education activists from communities across the Northeast. The struggle involved a close brush with success in 2005, only to see the property snatched away by a developer, followed by some serious contamination of the land with arsenic, lead and volatile chemicals under mysterious circumstances.
The need for another NELA high school has been apparent for decades, as secondary students from Glassell Park and Cypress Park have had to walk or take the bus to Eagle Rock, Franklin, Marshall and Lincoln. Those schools have long been overcrowded, resulting in year-round scheduling with shortened school years and portable classrooms.
The Taylor Yard site was a rare find on the urban landscape. A school could be built there without necessitating the displacement of any homes or businesses. It was set back from a major transportation corridor. A large park was going in just down the block. A community college satellite campus was slated for just up the street. And property owner Legacy Partners of Texas wanted to sell.
Still, a full high school may have looked like too much to hope for. LAUSD was simply not in building mode and hadn’t been for generations.
In September of that year, then Glassell Park Neighborhood Council Chair Helene Schpak brought together representatives of LAUSD, the Construction Bond Oversight Committee, City Council offices, the Neighborhood Council and property owner Legacy Partners.
“The purpose of the meeting was to introduce ourselves to each other and begin the process of discussing the viability/possibility of a school being built on Parcel F,” says Schpak. “It was agreed that the conversation would continue.”
At that point, Caltrans pulled out of discussions about the property.
A lot changed in 2004. A voter-mandated move away school overcrowding meant dollars for construction. Local activists pointed LAUSD in the right direction, and in 2004 the district was on the verge of an agreement for the purchase of Taylor Yard Parcel F. The district began an environmental assessment. The School Board took its sweet time with the politics of approval, but HS13 looked like a done deal.
But a shocker of a plot development was in the works. In 2005, the development firm of Meruelo Maddox swooped in and offered Legacy Partners more money than the fair market value the school district could spend by law. The District is said to have offered $29.4 million. Meruelo Maddox offered $30 million.
Meruelo Maddox holds the largest property portfolio in Downtown Los Angeles and has extensive holdings in areas surrounding Downtown. CEO Richard Meruelo was the largest individual donor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s election campaign.
Meruelo Maddox dubbed the property “Riveredge Village.” A description of the development firm’s plan for Glassell Park is on the company’s web site:
A mixed use community is being planned to offer attractive housing, local-serving retail and inviting public spaces that bridge Glassell Park and a projected revitalized L.A. River. Projected for the 23 acre plus parcel are 1,000 to 1,200 units of varied housing types, and 120,000 SF of commercial uses, a variety of active and passive open spaces, and links to proposed mass transit system. It has been recommended that a high school planned for the site be relocated on an adjacent central parcel bordering the Rio de Los Angeles State Park to encourage joint use.
The “adjacent central parcel” referred to is the current Fed Ex site, which Meruelo Maddox only recently acquired. The Fed Ex property is less than half the size of the site Meruelo bought out from under the school district. Rather than having their own athletic and recreation spaces, the high school students would be expected to use the new park, a use for which community activists say the park was not designed. Further, the smaller parcel is the subject of a legal dispute totally separate from the LAUSD case.
Rethinking the plan for the school, which was designed specifically for the Parcel F site, could mean a delay of five years.
The school district was having none of it. The board went after the larger parcel by means of eminent domain, Meruelo Maddox took the matter to court, negotiations failed—and hence, the November 19 court date.
The court appearance resulted in a victory for LAUSD and local school advocates. But there are still huge issues to be worked out.
First up is the fact that the temporary owner apparently trashed the place.
In 2006, the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council and the Glassell Park Improvement Association began receiving inquiries as to why there were trucks pulling into the property. A strip of land was covered in asphalt, and Glendale Kia began storing cars there. The neighborhood council board wrote to officials at various levels of government expressing the concern that a large pile of dirt had appeared at the site, and no one knew what was in it. No one could find any permits.
Actually, activists didn’t know what was being imported—but they had their suspicions.
In April of this year, the Los Angeles City Attorney announced that his office had filed multiple criminal charges against Meruelo Maddux Properties for the improper removal and disposal of asbestos-tainted materials at a demolished industrial complex on the edge of Downtown. The complaint alleged 16 criminal counts, including illegal disposal of hazardous waste and improper handling and disposal of asbestos removal. The company was unable to document proper asbestos removal procedures or provide waste shipment records for hazardous materials removed from the site.
In October, LAUSD received the results of its newest environmental study. Despite substantial clean-ups of the former rail yard in the l990s, there are now 37 sites on the property contaminated with arsenic, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and/or pesticides. The infill contains building debris. Clean-up will involve trucking out 7,000 cubic yards of soil and the total clean-up cost will be about $4 million.
Javier Hinojosa of the Department of Toxic Substances Control told a November 8 community meeting on a remedial action plan that “undocumented” soil represents a huge portion of the contamination. Tom Watson of the LAUSD Office of Environmental Health and Safety, when asked about the “undocumented” fill said, “We believe it was brought in by Meruelo Maddox.”
In January, the court will address the issue of hazardous clean-up and who’s going to pay. In April, the court will assess whether and how the change of ownership impacts Glendale Kia (although its lease on the property ends in January).
On May 5, a valuation trial will take place. Attorneys cannot discuss figures being put forth in chambers, but one participant did divulge that Meruelo Maddox is asking for approx 75% more than LAUSD’s valuing of the property.
But despite pending issues, education activists from Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Atwater Village and other NELA communities are in fact getting the school they have been fighting for.
The school has been designed to accommodate almost 2,300 students. They will, however, be divided among five “small learning communities,” each with its own building and its own specific area of academic focus. Students will therefore have the advantages of personalized attention and of shared athletic, arts and library facilities. It is expected that programming will make strong use of the revitalization effort at the nearby L.A. River.
Roberta Trotman of the Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council points out that Marshall has 4,500 students, while each learning community at HS13 will have 460 students with their own administrator. The official district drop-out rate is 15%, although Trotman says the number of students who start 9th grade but never graduate from high school is substantially higher.
“Kids drop out of school because they’re bored,” says Jackie Goldberg, the area’s former School Board Rep, City Council Member and State Assembly Member.
“We need this size school,” says Trotman, “and a development like Meruelo’s just exacerbates the problem.”
If all goes well, current fifth graders may be the first students of High School 13.