Building Potential : Schools Study Franciscan Plant Site

Times Staff Writer

An obscure state bill designed to give school districts more flexibility in finding sites for schools has revived the interest of Los Angeles school officials in purchasing the former Franciscan ceramics plant in Atwater.

The Los Angeles Board of Education's building committee is studying use of the 45-acre property either as a high school to relieve crowding at Belmont High School, 5 1/2 miles to the south, or as an administrative headquarters that would combine several scattered facilities.

The property on Los Feliz Boulevard, where the Franciscan line of dinnerware was made for many years, is being purchased by a development company that plans to build a shopping center after completing a costly cleanup of lead residue from decades of ceramics manufacturing.

School board members instructed district officials last week to review the cleanup plan of the buyer, Schurgin Development Co., said Bob Niccum, the district's director of real estate. Niccum said he expects to report early next month whether the contamination presents too great an obstacle for the district to use the land.

Considered Once Before

The school district once before considered buying the land, which became available when the Franciscan factory closed in 1984. At that time, state laws would have precluded funding for a school outside the Belmont attendance area, said Ron Prescott, associate superintendent for legislative affairs. The Franciscan property is in the Marshall High School attendance area.

Since then, the district has been studying purchase of the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard for a new high school. That plan, however, faces opposition from historical preservationists, who want to protect the landmark hotel, and from community groups, who complain that a school would cause further traffic congestion, Niccum said.

School board members revived the study of the Franciscan site in September after Gov. George Deukmejian signed a bill that was presented to the Legislature by the Los Angeles Unified School District to increase its flexibility in placing new schools.

The measure, Assembly Bill 3186, allows school districts to combine the enrollment of neighboring school attendance areas to determine the need for new campuses, Prescott said.

Because of the new law, the district could build a school in Atwater that would absorb about 1,240 excess students at Belmont and 400 each from Marshall and Eagle Rock high schools.

A report prepared by the building services division said the district would have the option of filling the new school by busing students from Belmont or by realigning the boundaries of the three attendance areas.

The report cited drawbacks to both options. A transportation program would commit the district to a permanent general fund expenditure. New attendance boundaries would have to be irregular to balance the four schools.

Use of the Franciscan property as an administrative headquarters would also draw heavily on the district's general fund because that type of project is not eligible for state reimbursement, the report said. Another obstacle to either use of the Franciscan property could be the same sort of community opposition that the Ambassador Hotel plan aroused.

Shopping Center Opposed

Ed Waite, president of the Atwater Homeowners Assn., opposes the shopping center, but said he would oppose a high school as strongly.

Waite said he thinks that the community "would not take too kindly" to a high school on the Los Feliz property because of traffic problems.

The property, now a wasteland of dilapidated buildings and debris, was a center for pottery and ceramic manufacturing going back to at least 1905. The Franciscan lines, developed in the 1930s by Gladding, McBean & Co., were exclusively manufactured at the factory for half a century, during which time they were among America's leading sellers.

The end of the tradition was presaged when the English ceramics firm Wedgwood bought out Franciscan in 1979. Wedgwood closed the factory five years later, transferring production to England.

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