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$11.5-Million Repair of 2 Hangars Quietly OKd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most expensive city project ever undertaken at Van Nuys Airport--rebuilding two massive World War II hangars--was quietly approved this month by Los Angeles airport commissioners without the usual public notifications, The Times has learned.

Commissioners at their meeting Jan. 13 approved spending $11.5 million to repair the buildings, damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The hangar project will have the effect of forcing out an airport tenant, a small entertainment industry business the city has been battling to evict for the past year in an action that the tenants have protested as arbitrary and unexplained.

No notice that the commission was to consider such a project appeared on its agenda for that day, the customary method of alerting interested parties and the public under the provisions of the Brown Act, the state law requiring governments to function openly.

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Instead, a notice of the proposed hangar contract was posted outside the commission’s hearing room at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 7, one day after the regular agenda was mailed. Department officials said documents were not completed in time for the regular agenda, and the Brown Act allows agenda changes to be posted at the meeting site at least 72 hours before the meeting.

Even Van Nuys Airport Manager Ron Kochevar was in the dark about the hangar contract, despite its size. He said he learned just minutes before the commission meeting that action was scheduled.

“I guess they forgot to tell me,” he said.

Department attorneys said the surprise late addition was within the law. However, an expert on the Brown Act said that the appearance of the late posting is that “it could well be sneaky.”

Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, suggested that because the department distributes the commission agenda by mail, “they should somehow try to conform their amended agenda policy to fit that.” He said that mailing late items “is not legally required, but it would obviously avoid a lot of frustration.”

The timing of the action also appeared to head off any possibility that it could be reviewed or changed by the City Council.

The minutes of the commission action will not be published until after they are approved at the next commission meeting Feb. 17. In the meantime, the two-week period in which the City Council has the right to rescind action by the airport commission has already expired.

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The hangar project will displace Syncro Aircraft Interiors, which the city has been fighting to evict from its leased hangar for the past year. The company protests that this will destroy its small, family-owned business, which sank $420,000 into converting the dilapidated hanger into a sound stage that is now popular with film and TV companies.

Airport officials said, however, that they are considering ways to temporarily relocate the business during reconstruction.

The cost of the hangar project--which is intended simply to restore the hangars to their original condition, upgraded to meet current quake-safety requirements--is almost $3 million more than was estimated in a Department of Airports report last February, obtained by The Times. The existence of the report was unknown outside the department until recently.

The cost of repairing the two hangars is estimated to be about the same--more than $5 million each--even though one was deemed unusable and has been vacant for four years while the other has had extensive repairs and is the site of a thriving business.

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The quiet manner in which the issue was handled, as well as the size of the contract, has shocked the few people who have learned of it. George Jerome, chairman of the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council, said, “I am very concerned that public money is being wasted or frivolously spent.”

Jerome said he will discuss the issue at an advisory council meeting Tuesday evening.

“That sum of money is more than enough to question what the Department of Airports is doing,” Jerome said. “That is almost as much as two years of the total operating budget for Van Nuys Airport.”

Because the $11.5-million contract was approved as an “emergency repair . . . of urgent necessity” it does not require the usual public hearings and environmental impact reviews, according to officials of Los Angeles World Airports, the new name of the city’s airport department.

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The urgency arose after the city’s Department of Building and Safety issued an “order to comply,” requiring the airport “to submit plans and make repairs to hangars 901 and 902" to remedy quake damage, according to a commission report signed by John Driscoll, airport department executive director.

No such order seems to be in effect, however. When questioned, airport officials said the compliance order, issued last July, applies to only one of the hangars--902, which is occupied by Syncro. The building inspector who issued the order said it was rescinded last year after the necessary repairs were made by Syncro.

Despite that, airport officials have sought three extensions to comply with the order, the latest granted Jan. 27, according to department documents.

Department officials said they expect to recover the full cost of the repairs from the airports’ insurance carrier, Cigna, and from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But department officials said agreements have not been finalized.

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The full cost of the project is estimated at $12.765 million, including more than $1 million in city testing and inspection fees. The $11.5-million contract for design and construction was awarded to Matt Construction of Santa Fe Springs.

The two hangars, built by Lockheed 50 years ago, each cover 128,000 square feet, or approximately 3 acres. One of the hangars was previously occupied by Hughes, but was “red-tagged” because of heavy earthquake damage. The building has been sitting vacant and has steadily deteriorated for the past four years. The contract approved Jan. 13 allots $5.9 million for repairs.

The Syncro hangar, however, was given a “green tag” following some repairs. Syncro has been battling with the city for the last year over how much was spent. The airport department is auditing the company’s records to establish the amount. Repairs to that building are estimated to be only slightly lower than to the dilapidated building--$5.6 million.

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Syncro in the last few years has restored its hangar as a popular filming location. Yet the company, which also refurbishes airplane interiors, holds only a month-to-month lease from the city and has been staving off eviction since last March.

While the hangar item went unnoticed by most, Syncro owners Ed and Barbara Cesar learned about it Jan. 9 and attended the hearing with their attorney, Steven L. Hayes, and a private contractor, Craig Alexander. They challenged the amount of the contract and the procedure under which it was awarded, offering to do much of the repair work themselves in exchange for a long-term lease, according to a transcript of the meeting.

Several commissioners laughed at the suggestion, referring to another commission hearing last July in which the Cesars were accused by city attorneys of submitting bogus receipts for repair work and of failing to pay utility bills.

But Jerome, the airport advisory council chairman, said he has many of the same concerns as the Cesars. He said airport officials balked at his request for copies of documents detailing costs and specifications of the project. Jerome said he had to go outside the department to obtain a copy of a structural engineering report done for the department by consultants. That report, submitted in February, estimates the costs of repairs to the two hangers at $8.6 million, compared to a replacement cost of $15 million.

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Skeptical of the estimated repair costs, Jerome said he obtained an estimate from an independent contractor for re-roofing one of the hangars. The contractor’s estimate was under $200,000, compared to the department’s estimate of more than $590,000.

Jerome said he asked Robert H. Millard, chief airport engineer, to attend the advisory council meeting Tuesday to answer questions. He said Millard at first accepted, then later declined, citing other commitments.

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys.


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