Classroom Construction: The Good Ol' Days Are Gone
When California's first "space-saver" school opens next fall in Santa Ana, it will be an immediate orphan. The program that gave birth to the school no longer exists. Instead, the state and school officials are pursuing different strategies to provide classroom space in growing urban districts, as evidenced by innovative new schools in Pomona and Long Beach.
The state space-saver program, launched with great fanfare during the early 1990s, sought to solve the problems of growing urban districts by offering to finance half of new school construction on high density parcels. But only two schools are ever expected to be built in the state under the program: the Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana and one expected to open near Los Angeles's California Science Center in 2003.
Still, urban school districts find themselves in a difficult predicament: growing enrollments dictate the need for more classrooms, but the large parcels needed to construct new schools have disappeared. The ongoing debacle over Belmont Learning Center in Los Angeles — a large downtown school on which the school district spent $170 million before halting construction because of soil contamination and seismic safety concerns — underscores how difficult it is for urban districts to find suitable land for such development. (See CP&DR Deals, April 1998, CP&DR Schools Watch, December 1996.)
But a variety of creative efforts are springing up around the state to deal with the classroom shortage. And with bond money from last year's Proposition 1A still available for school construction, districts likely will continue to come up with new ideas for building.
The typical suburban school campus is on 10 to 12 acres, most of which is used for playgrounds. Some districts, such as Anaheim Elementary in Orange County, are now considering building completely new schools on those playgrounds, said Duwayne Brooks, director of the school facilities planning division for the California Department of Education.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is considering several joint use projects with existing schools. One plan is to build a 1,500-student high school campus on land that is part of East Los Angeles Community College. The high school students would share the college's existing athletic and cultural facilities. Los Angeles Unified is also building smaller schools for kindergarten through third graders because those schools can be built for fewer students and need less real estate.
Other districts, such as Lodi Unified in the Central Valley, have built schools next to parks so that parkland becomes the school's play area. Schools reciprocate by opening gymnasiums at night for community use, Brooks said.
The hottest concept right now is increasing the use of two-story portables, according to Jim Murdoch, director of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing in Sacramento. Los Angeles Unified and Capistrano Unified in South Orange County are two districts using the newest portables.
One of the more unusual projects to find new space for schools is under way in Pomona, where a failing 40-acre shopping center is being converted into a mixed-use educational and commercial center. While definitely not a space saver, the Pomona Educational Center is reusing existing buildings.
When it opens next fall, 1,800 kindergarten through sixth-grade students will attend classes in the Pomona Educational Center — next to a drug store, cinema and restaurant — in the Village at Indian Hills shopping center. The school will also contain a conference center, teacher training facilities and adult education facilities, according to Tom Blurock, the project architect. The school could be converted to a high school in the future.
With sites limited in urban areas, "you have to be more opportunistic," he said.
And distressed commercial areas offer possibilities for elementary schools. "That's kind of the flip side of the space-saver," he said.
The school district is converting parking lots behind the buildings into playgrounds and athletic fields. Total development cost is about 80% of normal, according to Blurock.
The Mendez space-spacer school, while built on a small parcel of land, is also located in a shopping center in Santa Ana called Bristol Market Place.
Blurock said other clients, including the Hawthorne School District, are considering commercial sites for future schools, although in that city, the old mall that is being eyed may have to be torn down before construction can begin.
Blurocks' Orange County firm also recently designed a school in downtown Long Beach, that did not get state space-saver money, but exemplifies how to fit a school into a tight space. The 950-student Long Beach International Elementary School sits on 2.5 acres. A concrete deck over classrooms serves as a playing field, and a small site across the street is being renovated into a quarter-acre park. The site was formerly the school district's headquarters and parking lot. The district moved its offices to a more suburban neighborhood in Long Beach to free up the land. The school did receive about half its $14 million funding from Roos funds, another state program (now ended) aimed at helping urban districts develop constrained school sites.
When state Senator Leroy Greene of Sacramento first introduced the idea of space-savers in 1991, his idea was to help urban districts such as San Francisco find ways to build new schools without resorting to eminent domain. Greene, who had been a civil engineer, envisioned schools built on top of parking garages at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, or building a school on a bridge over the Los Angeles River. The cost of the facility could be no more than building a standard school.
But districts foresaw a lot of paperwork, and stadium officials did not jump at the notion of converting their empty parking lots into schools.
The Los Angeles space-saver project is expected to receive funding next year, according to Lyle Smoot, the state building program coordinator for the LAUSD, and a former employee at the state allocation board when the space-saver program was established. The school will be located at Exposition Park in a renovated building that is currently used by the California Science Center. The three-story building will continue to house some of the Science Center on the top floor when it is completed.
The second space-saver school will probably be the last. The authority to make allocations for space-saver projects was deleted by SB 50, passed in 1998 as part of the legislation that led to Proposition 1A.
Duwayne Brooks, California Department of Education, (916) 445-2144
Tom Blurock, architect, (949) 646-9373
Lyle Smoot, Los Angeles Unified School District (916) 442-2591
Jim Murdoch, Coalition for Adequate School Housing, (916) 441-3300