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Neighbors push back against private schools' plans to expand

Even as some public schools struggle to repair leaky plumbing and cracked concrete, elite private campuses throughout the Los Angeles area are embarking on big-ticket upgrades to satisfy growing demand for cutting-edge education.

Many of these schools are in some of L.A.'s most affluent enclaves, and the building boom is raising the ire of some residents who dread the prospect of years of construction and noise, increased congestion and changes in character for their tony neighborhoods.

"All of these private schools are on the march," said Eric Edmunds, a Mandeville Canyon resident who opposes the construction plans of the Archer School for Girls because of traffic concerns.

Archer, in Brentwood, has weathered a four-year skirmish with neighbors over its $100-million expansion plans. It appears poised to win Los Angeles City Council approval on Tuesday after a compromise brokered by Councilman Mike Bonin.

In Sherman Oaks, the Buckley School has added two state-of-the-art buildings for academics, performing arts, math and science and is constructing a high-tech community facility with retractable seats and glass walls. The school scaled back its initial expansion plans in 2008 after a storm of neighborhood protest.

Marlborough School in Hancock Park recently razed five houses to add an Olympic-sized aquatics center, fitness facility and expanded athletic field. Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City is planning a 750-space parking garage with a rooftop athletic field, drawing resistance by neighbors.

The latest growth spurts are part of a gradual expansion of L.A. private schools that dates back at least two decades. Parents who can afford the hefty tuition — which can top $38,000 a year — see these schools as a way of giving their children a leg up.

And the schools feel pressure to provide the latest academic, athletic and technological bells and whistles not found at many public schools.

"Every school wants to make its mark," said Fiona Whitney, a school consultant and author of guides to Los Angeles private and public schools. "They want it bigger and better with more competition now."

Three or four decades ago, she said, only half a dozen private schools were considered premier. But her private school guide now lists about 80 campuses.

Overall, 9.6% of the nation's 55 million school-age children attend private schools, a percentage that has slipped slightly since the 2008 recession slowed the 1990s boom in enrollment and campus expansions, according to Myra A. McGovern, a vice president of the 1,800-member National Assn. of Independent Schools.

But in California, a sample of 20 schools found that enrollments have grown by 3.1% in the last five school years, compared with a 2.3% growth during the previous five-year period, McGovern said.

"There was a real fear during the recession about whether schools would be able to get students, and a lot of initiatives for new buildings stopped," she said. "Since the recovery, schools are feeling more comfortable."

Dale Goldsmith, a Los Angeles land-use attorney, said his firm has secured city approvals for construction at a dozen independent schools, including Brentwood School, Campbell Hall, Windward, Marlborough, Buckley and Le Lycée Francais.

He said that changing educational philosophies are driving some of the campus renovations. With the focus today on collaborative, interactive learning featuring small-group work rather than droning lectures, educators prefer breakout spaces to boxy classrooms. That means high-tech science and math facilities, championship-worthy athletic fields and state-of-the-art lighting and audio equipment that would make Broadway proud — and catch the eye of tuition-paying parents.

Other design trends include environmentally friendly buildings and flexible spaces that can be used for multiple purposes, McGovern said.

The Center for Early Education in West Hollywood built a facility with retractable seats, allowing space for theater performances to convert to an open sports court. This year, the school unveiled plans to raise $75 million to build a surface parking lot and new buildings.

Because many schools gave short shrift to parking in their original designs, they tend to add spaces when they renovate, Goldsmith said.

Harvard-Westlake's proposed parking structure, which is undergoing environmental reviews, has set off furious opposition. Sarah Boyd of the Save Coldwater Canyon group said the project would snarl traffic and destroy much of the open woodland of oak and walnut trees that serves as a wildlife habitat.

"It's a huge environmental blunder," Boyd said.

But Stacy Marble, the school's spokeswoman, said more than 60% of the project area would be spruced up with lush landscaping, including a net addition of nearly 200 trees. She said the garage would eliminate the need to use neighborhood streets for parking and allow the school bus operation to move off busy Coldwater Canyon Avenue.

Archer's proposal includes new performing and visual arts centers, gyms and an underground parking garage for more than 200 vehicles. The project would require months of excavation and dirt-hauling, with potentially hundreds of daily truck trips from its location at Sunset Boulevard and Barrington Avenue — one of the area's worst traffic choke points.

"We have been renting venues and busing kids all over the city for athletics and performing arts," said Elizabeth English, the head of school. "It's really time we provided the girls with facilities that other schools have."

For many Brentwood residents, the timing of Archer's proposal seemed cruel, coming atop more than four years of traffic-tangling construction to widen the 405 Freeway.

If the project is approved, Archer expects to begin construction in 2017 and complete all work in about three years, half the originally projected time. The school also agreed to scrap plans for an aquatic center, downsize its performing arts center and eliminate field lights and an outdoor sound system, among other compromises.

"If [the project] was going to make traffic worse, I was against it," Councilman Bonin said. "If it would leave traffic the same, I'd consider it. If it would leave it better, that's a thumbs up."

Archer made so many traffic concessions, Bonin said, that traffic in the area should actually improve once the project is finished — a contention that project opponents say defies belief.

Some residents remain disgruntled. David Wright of the Sunset Coalition, a new opposition group, said the compromise that Bonin and two neighboring families devised with Archer has been endorsed by just one of a dozen neighborhood groups, the Brentwood Homeowners Assn. The coalition claims to have hundreds of signatures on a petition opposing the project because of gridlock concerns.

"If Bonin pushes this through [on Tuesday] with his endorsement," Wright said, "we will sue to stop it."

Not all projects engender bitter town-gown relationships. In North Hollywood, Oakwood School's original plan to construct four- and five-story buildings and a pedestrian bridge to connect the secondary school campus with a newly purchased site across Magnolia Boulevard initially appalled many neighbors.

But over the last three years, Neighborhood Council Valley Village members and school officials have forged a "fantastic" working relationship that resulted in a plan that satisfies both sides, said council President Tony Braswell.

Goldsmith, the attorney, said the gleaming campus improvements should be embraced as a benefit to Los Angeles.

"It's not like it's prison expansion," he said. "At the end of the day, this is about providing a better educational experience for the children of Los Angeles."

martha.groves@latimes.com
Twitter: @MarthaGroves

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com
Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

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