Judge delays plans for new school

Times Staff Writer

A community group won a small victory against the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District on Thursday when a judge delayed the construction of a new elementary school in Echo Park, ruling that the school system must complete a more comprehensive environmental review.

In a two-page ruling, Superior Court Judge Daniel S. Pratt said the district must complete a full environmental impact report to address whether the proposed closure of a residential street to build the 3.4-acre campus would excessively increase traffic and lengthen response times by staff at a nearby fire station. The district must also consider whether the school would have a major impact on cultural and historical resources, housing and land use by razing dozens of rental units, houses and businesses.

"It may be just a paper victory for a lot of people, but for me it's proof that we were right from the beginning," said Christine Peters of the Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council. She created the Right Site Coalition more than a year ago to unite neighbors against the proposed school at Alvarado Street near Sunset Boulevard, arguing that it would break up the neighborhood, destroy historic bungalows and subject children to dangerous street crossings.

Tom Calhoun, head of the school's construction, said he still believes the site is the best place for the campus but added that "there are no perfect sites out there in an urbanized area."

District officials said the judge's ruling will delay the opening of Central Region Elementary School No. 14 a year, to 2010, but will not necessarily kill the project. The district said all the problems with the site -- including pedestrian crossings -- could be relieved.

"Of course, we will comply with whatever the judge has ordered," said Binty Harvey, a district spokeswoman.

The 875-student school was planned to relieve crowding at nearby Betty Plasencia, Rosemont Avenue and Union Avenue elementary schools, which officials said operate on four-track schedules because of crowding.

The Echo Park school is one of more than 150 that the district plans to build by 2012 at a cost of $19.5 billion.

Neighbors complained at district-sponsored community meetings but were unable to persuade officials to select another site. Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the area, is on record opposing the site.

L.A. Unified officials said alternate locations proposed by community members were not available or did not meet the school's needs. For example, the site of the now-closed Rampart police station, which some neighbors favored, was not available, according to the district.

Last year, the group took the case to court, asking a judge to force the district to complete the environmental impact report, an exhaustive study that tells school board members, who must approve any new schools, and the public about potential problems and whether and how they can be resolved.

Officials said they had studied the issues, but presented the board with a condensed report, called a mitigated negative declaration, which they said is the only document required when the problems are minor or can be resolved. They said the difference was one of the style over the substance of the report.

"There's really not additional analysis that's going to be done in conjunction with" the environmental impact report, attorney Patrick A. Perry, who represented the district, argued in court Monday. "All it's going to do is take additional time, additional money."

But Pasadena attorney Robert P. Silverstein, who represents the neighbors, disagreed. "It's a vastly more detailed and in-depth document," he said. "By definition it means that there may be unmitigable impacts, and they always do more study."

The judge's ruling does not mean that the school site has insurmountable problems, only that the neighbors met the low burden of evidence, giving a "fair argument" that there could be significant impact.

So far, the district has spent $21.5 million on the project, most of it to buy the property and relocate the residents. The land is currently fenced off. L.A. Unified halted demolition pending the judge's ruling.

Jesus Villanueva, 35, said his family home was among those purchased and now sitting vacant. "They give you money so you could live for three or four months," he said. "And then what?"

He said the family wanted to stay in the neighborhood, so they squeezed into a smaller house.



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