Apodaca: Not all construction is created equal

This is a tale of two schools, one church, and three construction projects.

The building projects are underway at Costa Mesa High School, Corona del Mar High School, and Our Lady Queen of Angels, the Catholic parish across the street from CdM in Eastbluff. All began about the same time in the summer of 2011.

Guess which one is nearly done, while the others won't be finished until early 2014, at least by current estimates.

If you chose the church, you'd be correct.

There are plenty of reasons why the dedication ceremony for Our Lady's grand new sanctuary is scheduled for Dec. 15, while the construction zones at CdM and Mesa are still mostly dirt lots.

But the difference in timing can be lumped into two key issues: The bureaucratic entanglements encountered by the public schools and the surprises unearthed when digging commenced.

I'll get back to those, but first I'll quickly recap the three projects. In the case of Our Lady, the imposing, natural light-infused $15-million church, towering over Jamboree Road and Eastbluff Drive, is being erected on property acquired from St. Mark Presbyterian Church, which relocated to another Newport Beach site.

The old Our Lady church across the street, built in 1964, was deemed seismically inadequate and too small to meet the needs of a growing congregation. The land on which it sits will soon be a parking lot. The new, larger sanctuary will seat nearly 1,200. Once completed, another $5 million will be spent on a community room, childcare facility, and other improvements.

Meanwhile, CdM and Mesa, the school district's two 7-12 campuses, are in the midst of transforming their aging facilities. Plans call for both schools to build 350-seat theaters and separate middle-school enclaves where seventh- and eighth-graders will take most of their classes.

The funds for the school projects — estimated at $32 million each — are coming from the $282-million Measure F, which voters approved in 2005.

But observers today must use their imaginations to envision those projects, which reveal little to the untrained eye save for some neatly groomed dirt and a new weight room/storage facility at CdM, the lone new building to be completed so far.

The delay is largely the result of the slow pace of approvals from the California Division of State Architect, which was hit with budget cutbacks and staff reductions about the same time Newport-Mesa submitted its plans. DSA approval is required for all public-school construction.

"Everything we do goes through the DSA," Jim Lamond, NMUSD's director of facilities development, planning and design, said while leading me on a recent tour of the two campus construction zones. "Our school buildings are built to a stronger standard."

Other unforeseen complications were encountered as well. At CdM, for instance, new sewage lines had to be installed, and drainage issues proved problematic.

CdM's project has also been particularly challenging because the campus is relatively small and is wedged tightly into a residential neighborhood with limited access points. Scheduling building crews around classes and sports activities is a logistical pickle, and Lamond has worried that school-bound construction trucks would mistakenly divert to Our Lady or get stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, parking at the school, frustrating on a good day, has at times reached a new level of madness.

At first glance, Mesa's project would appear to be a breeze compared to its Newport Beach counterpart because the Costa Mesa campus is much larger and more accessible. But it has encountered its own share of drainage and grading problems, and flood-mitigation techniques were needed because Arlington Drive, which fronts the new enclave, is higher than the school.

The construction team also found the soil on Mesa's campus contained a surprising amount of clay, an unsound mixture that tends to expand when wet and contract when dry. Workers had to remove the soil, mix it with rocks, and put it back.

Most significantly, the crews discovered that a massive sewer line runs directly under the middle of the new building site. "That means we can't build on it," Lamond said. "The sanitary district has the right of way."

The solution? Build around it. Plans now call for the enclave to have a pair of two-story wings around an empty middle, which will be used as a pass-through from the drop-off area to a quad.

"People come out here and see a pile of dirt and say 'What's taking so long?'" Lamond said. "But there's a lot of preparation that goes in."

The CdM enclave finally got underway in September, and the district now has DSA approval for the theaters and the Mesa enclave, paving the way for those buildings to begin in January. If all goes as planned, everything should be finished around late winter or early spring 2014.

That might seem an eternity to the schools' patience-challenged faculty, students and parents. Just for fun I asked Lamond if he'd promise a completion date, knowing full well that much could still happen, from heavy rains to supply chain delays.

"I've been doing this type of work for 30-plus years, and one thing I have learned is not to promise and especially not to guarantee the ending date of a project," he replied.

So far, there's just one thing we can count on when it comes to the new school buildings: uncertainty.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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