Belmont building costs continue to soar

Times Staff Writers

The Belmont Learning Complex was envisioned as one of a kind. It would combine the city's first new high school in nearly 30 years with housing and retail development -- extras that could raise money to help cap construction costs at about $45 million.

When the school opens in 2008, at least nine years behind schedule, it will indeed make history -- with its cost. The final tab will top $400 million, almost certainly claiming the title of America's most expensive high school, and there will be no retail or housing.

The school, now called Vista Hermosa, was conceived in a school district that at the time lacked the expertise to build schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District has since put together the nation's largest school construction program, but the hemorrhaging continues at Belmont. Recent work expected to cost about $111 million will reach nearly $200 million instead.

For all the money spent, "they probably could have built three more high schools, maybe four," said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area. "That's a very painful reality. I think 70% of the cost was not necessary."

Even so, Reyes strongly supports the effort, partly because the latest version of the project adds badly needed open space, including a soccer field and nature park, funded by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Just-retired school board member David Tokofsky, on the other hand, opposed Belmont for most of his 12 years in office.

"The town wants this to be finished," Tokofsky said. "But there hasn't been a forthright presentation of the costs."

The first phase of the project ended in January 2000 when the school board decided to stop building the half-finished school over safety concerns. The school sits atop an oil field, and a full environmental study hadn't been made before the start of construction. More than that, Belmont had come to symbolize school-district impotence and failure, making it a political liability.

Enter Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who became district superintendent later that year.

"I felt that school was salvageable," said Romer, who left the district last fall. "And it was important to get rid of that scar on the community's surface. It was a reminder of the school system's failure to work. My attitude was: You got to cure it, as long as it's feasible economically and safe."

And everyone agreed the school was needed. At the time, about 77,000 students in the area went to school on a year-round schedule. About 15,000 others were bused to less-crowded campuses outside of their neighborhood. Down the street from the shell of the abandoned complex, old, undersized Belmont High enrolled more than 5,300 students.

Romer told a wary school board that finishing Belmont would show that the much-maligned school system could fulfill its promise of building and modernizing hundreds of schools.

He brought in an outside panel that concluded the school could be built to be safe if a fan and venting system were installed to prevent hazardous oil-field gases from accumulating inside buildings. Buildings all over Los Angeles, including some schools, face similar problems in this oil-rich basin. Romer also argued that it would be cheaper to finish Belmont -- for no more than $80 million -- than to sell the land and start anew elsewhere.

He got approval from the school board in March 2002 to hire a nascent nonprofit that would finish the project for $87 million.

The restart stalled, however, with the discovery of an earthquake fault on the site. After months of study, analysts determined students would be safe as long as buildings did not straddle the fault.

In 2003, the board again approved the project.

But the delay had added costs -- for starters, the chosen developers were paid about $2 million for their efforts, which ultimately came to naught when the project was redesigned and put out to bid again. Then there was the expense of more than a mile of trenches, which were needed to analyze the seismic risk.

The recalculated price rose to $111 million of which $78 million would be hard construction expenses, which include construction materials and manual labor. Officials had determined this estimate by multiplying the square footage by the going rate the school system was paying to build and modernize other schools, plus a few million dollars for demolition, surveys and other small contracts.

When the project went out to bid two years later, the results were nowhere near the estimated amounts. Hard construction costs alone swelled by $66 million over 2003 numbers. Officials said the difference was caused in part by their decision to add more square footage, but mostly by a wild run-up in material and labor costs during that time.

The board accepted the explanation and again gave the green light.

But nationwide, construction costs rose only 13% between November 2003, when the board approved the first Vista Hermosa budget, and September 2005, when the project went out to bid, according to a standard inflation index produced by the construction-trade magazine Engineering News-Record.

When pressed for details recently, district officials said that local inflation was about 20% over that period, which still doesn't begin to account for the huge price hike.

"The project had a history," Jim Cowell, the head of the district's new-construction division, explained in an interview. "There may have been a premium associated with working on this job."

The winning bidder, Hensel Phelps Construction Co., also won the only other high school project put out to bid in 2005. It agreed to build a 2,400-seat campus, known informally as the Eller Media school, for $99 million. The developer set the price for the 2,600-seat Vista Hermosa at tens of millions of dollars more.

And still that wasn't enough. Even though contractors were free to poke and pry at the construction site at will before placing bids, a string of problems emerged.

In January, for example, the district agreed to pay an additional $1.4 million to replace the fire sprinkler system, which had been left to rust in the years that the buildings were abandoned. Officials had planned to simply remove the corrosion, but later learned that this repair would have left the pipes too thin to meet code.

In addition, district officials said some of the work overseen by the previous developer, the Kajima Corp., and its lead contractor, the Turner construction company, was faulty.

When crews opened walls to deal with a mold problem, for instance, instead of seeing long continuous support beams, they found shorter ones spliced together and others that had been drilled into, weakening the structure. The beams had to be reinforced with straps or replaced.

In other places, a roughing process to level out uneven floors revealed cracks, some in the foundation, that had to be filled with epoxy.

The district said it didn't anticipate such problems; the previous builders were allowed to inspect much of their own work as a cost-saving measure.

In past legal jousts with the school system, members of the first development team denied any wrongdoing. In a 2001 dispute over billing, an arbitrator sided with the developers and their subcontractors.

Cowell said the district has settled with the Kajima/Turner team, meaning the newly discovered defects will have to be paid for by L.A. Unified.

The district expects to shell out $8.7 million more than anticipated simply to correct defective work and deteriorated systems that district officials said were discovered after Hensel Phelps began construction.

Turner has remained a district contractor, building 11 elementary and primary schools, and a high school, still under construction, in the San Fernando Valley. The total cost of these schools is about $400 million.

In addition to the costs of fixing past problems at Vista Hermosa, the district said it will pay $3.2 million above the contract amount to bring up the existing 216,000 square feet to the district's current design standards and updated building codes.

Among the work: adding bathroom floor drains, water shut-off valves and cleanouts for urinals. Cowell said some of the standards were being developed while the school was being designed, but that other things were simply missed in the original design.

Also, state regulators required the district to adapt safety measures to protect construction workers from the site's naturally occurring methane gas, adding an additional $3.4 million.

The district said it also underestimated how much staffing it would need to oversee the project, and has had to tack on an extra $7 million for increased fees for more architects, engineers, project managers, inspectors and other related costs.

The job has presented so many challenges that the district paid $80,000 to install a second trailer on-site to house additional architects to keep the school on track for its fall 2008 opening.

The result is that even the 2005 figures for how much Belmont would cost were, again, low. The current estimated hard construction costs are $162 million, part of a grand total for the restart of $197 million.

So how good a deal is Belmont for taxpayers?

"I can't speculate on whether they think ... it was a good deal or not a good deal," Cowell said. "The point was that we owned the property and we promised the school and we delivered that school.

"What happened to Belmont happened," he added, "and that's history."

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evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Costs on the rise

L.A. Unified spent more than $200 million on the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex before the project was canceled in 2000. Officials revived the project two years later; estimates of the additional cost have surged.

Estimated additional cost in February 2002: $60 million to $80 million

Estimate in March 2002: $87 million

Issues: Earthquake fault, inflation

Estimate in November 2003: $111 million

Issues: Deterioration, defects, inflation, higher standards, more square footage

Cost after bid was awarded in 2005: $174 million

Issues: Corroded fire sprinkler system, weak bracing, leveling floors, adding bathroom floor drains, safety measures, more staffing

Current estimate: $197 million

Projected total for completed school: At least $400 million

Source: Howard Blume and Evelyn Larrubia, Times staff writers

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Belmont's path

Key dates in the saga of the Belmont Learning Complex (now called Vista Hermosa), the city's most notorious school-construction project.

* 1993: L.A. Unified buys bulk of Belmont site in depressed real estate market.

* 1997: School board approves Belmont project; months later, ground broken.

* 1998: LAUSD "safety team" begins review of Belmont.

* 1999: Disclosures about inadequate safety review lead to construction slowdown; district inspector general alleges that project violated environmental laws; cost estimates rise.

* 2000: School board cancels project.

* 2003: Board votes 4 to 3 to give then-Supt. Roy Romer go-ahead to finish Belmont with revised plan.

* 2008: Scheduled opening under new name: Vista Hermosa, Spanish for "beautiful view."

Source: Howard Blume, Times staff writer

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