Fault Dooms Building at Southwest College : Education: Half the structure will be torn down. Officials plan to use temporary rooms to keep mostly minority campus open.


On the eve of fulfilling a promise made after the Watts riots a quarter century ago, officials have concluded that the recent discovery of an earthquake fault beneath Los Angeles Southwest College will force them to tear down half of the college’s only permanent building.

The fault, part of the Newport-Inglewood system, was found just as a long-awaited construction program was getting under way this summer. It was discovered during seismic testing not required when the building went up in the mid-1970s.

Discovery of the fault sent stunned college officials to Sacramento to seek state funds for portable classrooms and for demolition of two sections of the 14-year-old building. They are scrambling to assure students that the fall semester will begin as planned on Sept. 9 and to dispel rumors in the surrounding neighborhoods that their hard-won campus might shut down.


Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson (D-Los Angeles), who is sponsoring emergency funding legislation for the college, will hold a community meeting with college officials on campus today to outline plans for dealing with the situation and assure people that the college is there to stay.

“There is much that needs to be discussed with the community . . . about the proposed resolution to the problems the fault system poses,” Archie-Hudson said. “It is important to keep the college operating while ensuring the safety of those on campus.”

Getting state funds will not be easy, officials acknowledge, and the financially pinched college district does not have enough unallocated monies in its own coffers to cover relocation costs.

Discovery of the fault is the latest setback in the long struggle to bring a full-service community college to the minority neighborhoods of south Los Angeles.

Founded two years after the 1965 uprising in Watts amid promises of improved services for the impoverished community, Southwest operated with only a cluster of temporary buildings on its 80-acre site at Western Avenue and Imperial Highway. It took another decade before the main building opened, and the college district had to stand in a long line for state bond money before getting enough funds to resume building the campus.

Construction was about to start on a state-funded technical education center and a physical education building, the first permanent structures to be added to the campus since the main building opened in 1977. College officials do not expect the fault discovery to delay the new construction projects.


Plans for a student services complex, a health sciences education building and a community center were forced onto the back burner by district voters’ narrow defeat of a construction bond measure last spring.

Geologists doing seismic investigations for the building projects found signs of the fault jutting diagonally beneath two sections of the four-part, modular structure that houses most of the classrooms and administrative offices on the campus.

State law prohibits the construction of school buildings on top of known earthquake faults with the potential for ground surface rupture during the lifetime of the structure, and it forbids modifications to existing buildings. The law does not require that a building be abandoned if it is found to be resting on such a fault. But the discovery poses moral and liability problems for public officials.

Buildings near faults can be reinforced against shaking, but there is no way to protect a building that is on a fault. Patrick Campbell, chief structural engineer in the Office of the State Architect, said in the handful of other cases in which faults have been found under school buildings, school boards have abandoned them rather than risk disaster.

Geologists told Los Angeles Community College District officials that the fault under Southwest’s complex could cause the ground to shift as much as eight inches, enough to bring down the building. They estimated the probability of a quake big enough to do major damage at 1 in 200 in any given year.

Members of the district’s board of trustees are trying to minimize the risk to students and staff while keeping the college in operation.

Fall semester classes will be held in the affected building, where notices have been posted in English and Spanish about the threat. As soon as temporary facilities can be rented and installed, college officials will begin vacating the affected classrooms, possibly by the spring semester. Plans will be developed for demolishing the two sections--which contain 143,000 square feet of space and include all the science laboratories and most of the other classrooms.

Further seismic testing of the campus must be conducted, and the master plan for the campus will need to be revised.

Officials estimate the cost--not including a permanent replacement building--at $4.1 million, with another $4.3 million needed to rent temporary classrooms for five years.

District Chancellor Donald G. Phelps said he will have additional details for trustees at their regular meeting Wednesday.

Trustee Kenneth S. Washington, long active in the community serving the 6,000-student, virtually all-minority college, said discovery of the fault “is just a tragedy.”

“There are some people in the community who want us to leave the building open and carry on as usual,” Washington said. “We realize that (putting classes back into temporary buildings) will take away some of the allure of the college, and we are committed to maintaining a viable instructional program at Southwest, but we also have a responsibility for the safety of our students and staff.”

Many of the students on campus for registration this week seemed to take the news in stride.

“Living in L.A., you’re used to them,” freshman Holly Sanders, 28, said of quakes.

“It does have you kind of leery,” said Derick Adams, 26, president of the Associated Students Organization.

“But it’s not a thing of great fear,” added Adams, who said he is more concerned about disruption during construction of the temporary classrooms.

Chancellor Phelps acknowledged that the district could face a tough fight in Sacramento for the money it needs to resolve the problem because the district hopes to tap a small pool of funds in a state building account that community college districts throughout California are competing for.

But he said the district’s new urgent need--and the community’s long wait for a complete campus--offer compelling arguments.

“The state has money that can be made available, and it ought to do so immediately,” Phelps said. “I really believe this is an opportunity to finally get on with the completion of the campus that was promised to this community so long ago.”

Times staff writer Sherry Joe contributed to this story.

An Unfortunate Find Ten years after its founding in 1967, Los Angeles Southwest College got its first-and still its only-permanent building, a four-part modular structure.

During recent seismic testing, officials learned that part of the complex sits atop anearthquake fault. Sections C and D will have to be demolished.