Land Shortage Forces Joint-Use Schools Planning In Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Unified School District has embarked on a huge land-purchase effort as part of a massive school construction program. But because the cost of real estate in the region is so high — and available land is scarce — the district and other agencies are beginning to emphasize joint use.
The 79 new schools that compose Phase I of the construction program all have been or will be designed with some level of community use in mind. And future phases of the capital improvement program will contain even more aggressive approaches to shared uses, said Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer.
Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a former city councilwoman and LAUSD trustee, is pressing for more joint-use projects. To further her efforts, Goldberg has conducted two meetings with dozens of representatives of government agencies, nonprofit organizations and development interests. A third meeting is scheduled for this month.
For a variety of political and economic reasons, LAUSD has built few schools during the last three decades. At the same time, the enormous district's student population has grown, and officials expect increased enrollment in the future. To accommodate current and future students, the district plans to build 79 new schools — including 15 comprehensive high schools — during the next few years. The district also plans a second phase to expand and upgrade 60 existing campuses and add playground space at 19 other schools within the next five years. On top of those 158 projects, the district needs 140 to 160 additional schools in future phases to eliminate the need for year-round schools, which is a priority for Romer.
The LAUSD, however, serves some of the most densely populated areas in the country, and there is little vacant land for new schools. In many instances, the district displaces housing or businesses when constructing a new school. For the 79 new schools, the Board of Trustees has already approved more than 60 eminent domain resolutions involving hundreds of real estate transactions. Goldberg and others clearly want to see the new schools — but not at the expense of housing and jobs.
The communities that need new schools are the ones that most need housing, jobs and other facilities, such as parks, libraries and community gathering places, said Suzi Hoffman-Kipp, an aide to Goldberg. But meeting numerous community needs is difficult because of differing and sometimes conflicting laws and administrative regulations. So Goldberg has gathered people to locate the hurdles and figure out ways to cross them.
At the last meeting — which about 30 lawyers from a variety of entities attended — informal committees were assigned to answer 15 questions, such as whether the school district could use housing relocation money to create replacement units, and whether the district could sell or lease air rights above schools.
These issues and questions are not new. A number of people, including the organization New Schools Better Neighborhoods, have been advocating these things for years. But as chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, Goldberg brings added weight to the discussions.
Under Romer and the current Board of Trustees, the LAUSD is willing to consider joint-use projects, but some observers believe the district is unwilling to change its approach significantly. The district's Gritzner said LAUSD is not necessarily the best entity to be in charge of joint-use projects.
"We want our schools to be the center of their communities. The superintendent has said that over and over again," Gritzner said. "But our job is not to plan housing and retail. We're not the Community Redevelopment Agency, nor should we be."
True joint-use projects —parks or libraries shared by schools and the general public, a housing project next to a school, retail site leases — are tremendously complicated.
"It's hard to even frame the questions," said Jane Blumenfeld, director of school facilities planning for the City of Los Angeles. "It's good, but it's very complicated. For us, joint use is critical because there are many, many needs."
The school district has the money — voters approved a $3.3 billion bond for LAUSD in November and the district has been getting more state bond money than in the past — and the district has the will to build, Blumenfeld noted. Plus, the district is most often building in neighborhoods where parking, play space and other amenities are sorely lacking. So the city would like to work as many items into the school projects as reasonably possible.
There is not a great deal the city could do for joint-use projects. What it can do is serve as a facilitator and provide interpretations to regulations and processes that aid the projects, Blumenfeld explained.
Among those who often protest the loudest over a new school are the residents themselves. That is because the district buys up housing units to create a school site. Goldberg has insisted that housing advocates should be part of her discussions, which is a good sign, said Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing. In the past, school officials have not approached tenant groups until the deal was done, she said.
"It will never be a perfect process, but … there are clever things that can be done," Breidenbach said. "I'll just be damned if we should have to make the choice — schools or housing."
Goldberg's discussions could result in legislation, said her aide, Hoffman-Kipp. But the assemblywoman has decided nothing yet and has no timeline. She just does not want to see future joint-use projects take years longer to deliver than traditional school projects.
As for the LAUSD, officials have identified all but two sites for the 79 new schools, and the district now controls about 60% of the land it will need. Four schools are complete, about two dozen others — including the district's first two new high schools in 30 years — have at least started construction, and plans are ready for many of the remaining Phase I schools. Designers have had some shared-use in mind for every school, even if that only means making bathrooms accessible for community meetings without having to open the entire school building, Gritzner said.
Once it gets the Phase I schools complete, the district will have more breathing room to contemplate what it considers "robust" joint-use projects that entail funding from a variety of sources, joint-use agreements, and true sharing of maintenance, operations and liability, Gritzner said. And it will consider being a partner in projects that involve housing and businesses, he said.
Suzi Hoffman-Kipp, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg's office, (323) 258-0450.
Glenn Gritzner, Los Angeles Unified School District, (213) 241-7000.
Jane Blumenfeld, City of Los Angeles, (213) 978-1372.
Jan Breidenbach, Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, (213) 480-1249.