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.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Coalition Responds: Autry’s New Accomplices: The Best That Money and Politics Can Buy

An Opinion of the Steering Committee of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition

Dear Editor,
Activist Eliot Sekuler received space to insult the intelligence of our community in your last issue. The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, a broad-based group with tens of thousands of constituents from over 70 organizations, including Native American supporters, wholly rejects the revisionist “history” contained in Sekuler’s opinion piece.

Now is not the time to be fooled by Autry’s new de facto spokesperson, Eliot Sekuler. He seems to act as if he speaks for our Coalition when he claims “we won.” The Southwest Museum remains threatened by the Autry National Center’s ongoing plan to take it all to Griffith Park.

Los Angeles did not win with the so-called “Southwest Museum Agreement” as claimed by the Mayor and Councilmember Huizar at a secret press conference this past September. Autry tries to paint the picture of a community “divided.” But this is not about a squabble within just the Mt. Washington community. The Southwest Museum’s future goes way beyond the “hill” where it iconically reposes as the cultural anchor of Northeast LA.

This is about Autry and what it is NOT willing to do for an underserved community. Autry refuses to provide an investment that’s remotely equitable to its ambition to raise $150 million for its Griffith Park home. Instead, Autry seeks to rob Northeast of our cultural resources and heritage.

Sekuler flip-flopped on his Mount Washington constituency as representative to the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council (ASNC). When political considerations led to his abandonment of the community, he asserted his own opinion as that of ASNC and was voted down and replaced as ASNC’s liaison to our Coalition. ASNC still remains a supporting organization in the Coalition, along with six additional Neighborhood Councils.

Sekuler does not need to quote Scripture to explain the real reason that he joined a few other individuals (Carol Jacques, her husband Bill Rumble, and Grayson Cook) to begin a campaign of false “excitement” over the “Agreement” memo from Autry CEO John Gray. Everyone knows the memo is nearly identical to the unenforceable proposal that Gray presented in September 2006 that the community, including Sekuler, rejected.

In our opinion, these individuals from Mount Washington are seeking to curry political favor by falsely claiming a divide of opinion – an old political trick. Instead of supporting community interests, these individuals are supporting the political playbook of the Mayor who, after three years of silence, has been seduced by the money of Autry and its law/lobbying firm, Latham & Watkins.

Sekuler will now lead this false campaign at hearings on Autry’s proposal to expand in Griffith Park by four times the size of the Griffith Observatory. Into this Autry behemoth, sitting on taxpayer land instead of land it owns here, the Southwest’s collection and identity will disappear. Thereafter, we think, the Autry will renege on the unenforceable “Agreement” touted by Sekuler. Autry then has the power to sell the Southwest Museum and take that money to Griffith Park too!

The story Sekuler et al are trying to sell to the na├»ve and uninformed is that our Museum really will become a “new cultural use” and “premiere public destination”. Autry refuses to make this “Agreement” enforceable so it is clear it exists only for the purpose of Autry looking “good” in the upcoming hearings.

Sekuler is a polished media relations executive for NBC Universal. He “spins” positive messages for Universal including its controversial $3 billion development project. This project is supported by the Mayor, Councilmember LaBonge and, like Autry, is also represented by Latham & Watkins. Sekuler’s diminished enthusiasm for holding Autry to its promises coincides with the announcement last fall of Universal’s ambitious plans.

Everyone knows that Sekuler cannot simultaneously serve the interests of the community and those of his employer. So now he emerges as the de-facto PR spin voice for Autry in Northeast LA. What better way to assure the Mayor continues to support Universal’s $3 billion traffic nightmare in the Cahuenga Pass than Sekuler’s help selling the Autry plan?

Autry wants this to devolve into a personality match between a few political operatives with a minority opinion and the overwhelming majority of Los Angeles represented by our Coalition. Instead, it is the time to:

• Hold accountable the Autry, Mayor, Councilmember Huizar, and these Mount Washington individuals for the misleading press conference at the Southwest Museum.
• Raise our collective voices to defeat the portion of Autry’s plan to expand so much in Griffith Park as to enable it to impair the Southwest as an important Northeast economic development anchor.
• Open our wallets to pay for enforcement of Autry’s promises.
• Tell the world about Autry’s breaches of fiduciary duties.

We are not going away until Autry stops trying to destroy the Southwest Museum in the Arroyo Seco -- the dramatic place where Charles Lummis envisioned a museum to serve the people of California and to educate your children.

Steering Committee of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition:

Nicole Possert, Mark Kenyon, Scott Piotrowski, Ann Walnum
Kay Brown, Keith Vielle,
Heinrich Kiefer, Johnnie Summer, Jesse Rojas, Olga Hall, Daniel

Friday, November 2, 2007

Editorial: GPNC’s Bradley Must Go

Community is Ill-Served by His Poor Leadership

Let’s consider the question of leadership for a moment. In a democracy, does the true leader lead or follow? Does he or she follow the wishes of those they serve or do they merely follow their own? Does a leader play by the rules or deconstruct them to serve their own ends? Do true leaders make up the rules as they go along?
One of the most unique and precious things Los Angeles has as a city is the Neighborhood Council system—a network of locally based citizen politicians elected by their neighbors. When administered properly, they are a strong and dynamic entity that can pay off with tangible changes in any neighborhood.
Used improperly, as in the case of the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council (GPNC), they can be a neighborhood’s own worst enemy and used only to further the goals of one group, or one person, in this case.
Bradley (He uses one name only), is perhaps the most stunning example of what can happen when ignorant leadership leads a Neighborhood Council astray.
Many in Northeast LA (and beyond) were appalled by his behavior last Spring as he attempted to bar a citizen from videotaping a GPNC meeting, and then simply lying to her as he demanded that she stop or leave the meeting.
It has happened again and again, at almost every subsequent meeting, when he, as an elected official, simply refused to answer any questions regarding his clear conflict of interest in the Victory Outreach Sign matter. He routinely refuses to answer our questions, and we stopped asking a while ago, opting instead to let facts speak for themselves.
Documents clearly show that he was in the employ of Victory Outreach when he was voting (in violation of procedure) in their favor.
He is a manipulative and arrogant leader, but without the strength of knowledge that the best manipulators hold. What we are left with is an ill-informed bully, who has recruited friends and business clients to further his goals and eventually line his own pockets.
To be clear, no one is accusing Bradley of actually stealing, but there is a pattern of action that begins with recruiting members of a church to run for election of a board you hope to control. They pay you to massage their case in City Hall, and your business grows.
What developer wouldn’t hire the chair of a neighborhood council to expedite his case in council chambers?
His poorly planned, unfocused and illegally over-budgeted upcoming Diversity Forum is only the latest example of his not playing well with others. We are not against the concept of a Diversity Forum (though its sounds like a lot of word noise), but we might be more supportive if anyone actually knew what it was.
Add to this his profound ignorance of parliamentary procedure—who can vote when, who can spend and how, and how to hold a meeting—and you have a community that is ill served and at the mercy of a capricious leader.
We don’t expect to see any current members of the GPNC Board rise up and call for his removal. Indeed, the Council amazingly does not have a bylaw mechanism for the removal of leadership.
We would ask them however, to take a good hard look at what is fair, who has benefited from his leadership, and who has lost.
Bradley, for the good of the community and your own future, leave the council of your own volition. Perhaps in the developer/builder/city hall circles you travel in, your coat is still shiny. But take it from us, from where we sit, you are naked.
And we can already imagine your ire at this editorial. And that’s fine with us.
We’re not afraid to say it again. It is time for you to resign.