Recreation Building Is Ready--at Last : Highland Park Center Building Saw 3 Years of Misgivings, Delays

Times Staff Writer

The new $1.2-million community building at the Highland Park Recreation Center is expected to be completed and fully opened to the public next week after three years of construction delays, threatened lawsuits and general misgivings about the project.

"We've been waiting over three years now. It's been hard on everyone," said Henry Ramirez, vice president of the Highland Park Sports Assn., which sponsors recreation for children and adults at the center.

The building was originally supposed to have been finished by May, 1983. Or so the city promised in 1982 when the old two-story, wood-frame clubhouse--a hub of social and recreational activities for 60 years--was torn down.

The new building on the same site will be dedicated Saturday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony to be attended by local and state government representatives. During their speeches, it's not likely that officials will dwell on the financial disagreements among the Los Angeles' Recreation and Parks Department, the contractor and subcontractors that led to the long delay and a lot of ill feeling.

"It's election time and we'll hear about how they fought to get this built so fast," Ramirez said.

Representatives of the recreation department say the city may end up suing the contractor. The contractor, in the meantime, is blaming the bureaucrats. Several subcontractors still are waiting to be paid for material and labor.

From the start, the new center has stirred debate. Senior-citizen groups wanted their cozy old clubhouse to remain and resented having to hold their activities at another location. But recreation enthusiasts, such as those who belong to the sports association, wanted to see the deteriorating clubhouse replaced with more modern facilities.

A series of community meetings were held by Los Angeles Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, who represented the area until district boundaries were reapportioned in September, 1982; it now lies in Councilman Joel Wachs' district. Eventually, it was decided by the community that a new building would be built where the old clubhouse once stood.

"The community was quite divided about whether or not to demolish the old building," said Arline DeSanctis, a deputy in Wachs' office. "Letters and petitions were 2-to-1 in favor of the new center, but there were still a lot of hard feelings for a long time."

The seniors argued that money could be saved by simply refurbishing the old clubhouse, said Eloise Currie, secretary of the advisory board for the seniors' clubs. "It was so unnecessary to spend all that money for a place that just looks horrible," she said of the one-story, concrete-slab building.

She added that the senior clubs have never been the same since they began holding meetings across the street at the Highland Park Adult Center. That building, she said, is "cold" and "no one likes the room we have to meet in now." But officials say that the seniors' clubs are likely to remain in the adult center.

The new building, situated on the northwest side of the park at 6150 Piedmont Ave., features a gleaming basketball court, a stage, a multi-purpose meeting room, a small classroom, kitchen facilities and an office for the park director.

Preschool Classes

Besides the recreation programs that the city will conduct and the activities of the sports association, the building is expected to be used to hold preschool classes sponsored by a local adult school and a Head Start program, a federally subsidized program for preschoolers. A hot meals program for needy elderly citizens has been operating out of the building since December.

The center's construction was funded through block grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Chadco Development Co., based in Santa Ana, was awarded a construction contract, stipulating that the building be completed one year after Chadco began breaking ground in May, 1982.

The work on the project began at a good pace, according to recreation department officials, but began to slow down after a few months. Then the city began receiving notices from subcontractors who said they weren't being paid by Chadco, the officials said. According to recreation department records, over the course of two years at least 23 subcontractors sent the city such notices, requesting payment for more than $480,000 in services.

Continued Extensions

Repeated warnings were sent to Chadco, but the city continued to grant the company extensions on its contract. This was done in spite of inspections and reports that showed work at the site was "erratic and slow, with many days passing with only one trade working," according to a report that was presented to the department's Board of Commissioners last June.

Making matters worse was a five-month-long carpenters' strike in 1983.

Ramirez of the Sports Assn. said members of the community argued with city officials about the slow progress but were repeatedly given excuses. "We were told that there were labor problems," he said. "We were told that there was a lack of material. We were told there was a lack of money. You name it, we were told it."

The city eventually canceled Chadco's contract in July. "We were never unhappy with the quality of the work," said Joel Breitbart, an assistant general manager for the recreation department. "We were only unhappy with the speed at which it was being done."

Breitbart declined to elaborate on what caused construction to bog down, saying that it "might be the subject of a future lawsuit." He would only say that "the principal problem was with cash."

Turned to Bonding Firm

Charles Hayes, who heads Chadco, said: "There were a lot of problems with the city right from the beginning." Hayes, in an interview this week, also declined, however, to discuss those problems in detail.

The city turned to the bonding company for the project, Covenant Mutual Insurance, which had a guarantee with the city to see that the project was completed. For two months, work at the site stopped altogether, until Covenant rehired Chadco in October to finish the project. The insurance company advanced funds to subcontractors, Breitbart said, which got them back on the job.

A spokesman from the bonding company declined to comment. Recreation department officials said they could not explain why the insurance company put Chadco back on the job.

"It's really hard for me to ascertain what the problem was," said DeSanctis, who said she has since been acting as a go-between. "It just seemed to be a total lack of understanding as to procedures. There was a real lack of communication with everybody involved--the city, the contractors and the subcontractors."

DeSanctis added that most people in the community are happy to see that the building will finally be open. "There is a real need for a center like this in the community and it's been delayed some time now," she said.

"We just hope everyone goes away and everything will be okay," Ramirez said. "We want to resume life in Highland Park."

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