Demolition of long-closed West Valley schools to begin Monday, leaving empty lots
Craig Clough | July 14, 2016
LA Unified will begin demolition Monday at the first of two schools to be razed in the West San Fernando Valley. But no new construction is planned, leaving empty lots in residential neighborhoods.
The Oso Avenue and Highlander Road elementary schools have sat mostly empty for more than 30 years, becoming eyesores and a source of conflict between their neighbors and the district.
The district is exploring the option of building new schools on the sites, but no solid plans are in place and the school board has yet to approve any new construction, said LA Unified Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter. The current plan is to raze the schools but leave the concrete slab foundations which could be used as part of any new construction, he said.
“(Neighbors) have had to live with staring at old dilapidated buildings long enough,” Hovatter said. “I want to make it as amenable as possible to the local neighborhoods and I’m working with the local councils to make sure that what I’m doing is reflective of what they want us to do.”
Demolition at Oso is scheduled to begin Monday and at Highlander on Aug. 20, Hovatter said, at a total cost of $2,337,303.
The schools were closed in the early 1980s as West Valley enrollment declined. In total, 18 schools in the West Valley closed in the late 1970s and early ’80s and six schools have re-opened, according to LA Unified, and others are still in use for other purposes. One is in use as administrative buildings, one was swapped with nearby California State University, Northridge and other was sold. In total, five school buildings remain vacant. Highlander had been rented by a private school for several years in the 1990s and occasionally used for filming.
Hovatter said the district began informing neighbors around Oso about the demolition on Saturday by handing out flyers door to door but has not yet started outreach around Highlander.
Several neighbors of Highlander contacted by LA School Report were unaware the district had plans to tear down the school, which the board approved in May, and were not happy about it.
“This is the first I’ve heard of them tearing it down. I had no idea and I’ve lived across the street from it for 30 years,” said Bonnie Johnson. “It’s kind of hard to say if I like the idea of an empty lot. Right now it is really derelict. It is a fire hazard. It looks like homeless people sleep there. Every now and then someone vandalizes it. It has been a real eyesore. I don’t know how people will feel about an open vacant lot.”
Highlander neighbor Faye Berta, who also was unaware of the coming demolition, said the consensus in the neighborhood has been for tearing down the school only when there are immediate plans to build a new one.
“I am quite taken by surprise. I don’t know which is better, a big empty school surrounded by weeds or a big, empty, ugly lot. We have all kinds of problems with the school,” Berta said. “So they’re going to leave slabs so skateboards can go on it, that’s the plan? They are just really into destroying the neighborhood, aren’t they? I’m not happy either way. I’m not happy looking at it the way it is, and I’m not happy thinking there could be a skateboard park there. Just think of the nighttime thrill that all the drug dealers are going to have, which would then attract vagrants.”
Neighbor Mark Berens said he has been emailing and calling the district for some time to get information on its plans for the school but had never heard back.
“I am surprised, not necessarily that it is happening but that it is happening now. I have asked for a plan and for an outline, and I haven’t gotten a response yet,” he said. “It’s a little disappointing that we don’t have any current communication regarding the project.”
Hopes were raised for new schools on the sites in the last two years as nearby El Camino Real Charter High School, an independent charter school, came forward with a plan to develop the sites and a third closed campus, Platt Ranch, into middle schools and a science center associated with El Camino. Platt Ranch was to be a science center as part of the plan, but it was contingent upon approval of the other two sites. The district has not announced any plans for Platt Ranch, and El Camino’s director of marketing, Melanie Horton, has said they are retooling their plans for Platt Ranch and may come forward still with a new proposal.
The district had long said it had no money or need for new schools in the area, and El Camino officials since 2014 and until recently were working on plans for new schools and conducting community outreach after having been named the preferred developer of the sites by the LA Unified school board.
But the plans came to a sudden halt in late 2015 and early this year, when over a series of meetings the school board denied El Camino’s charter applications for the sites as the district announced previously unknown plans to develop the campuses into two traditional schools directly controlled by the district.
The sudden change angered many Highlander neighbors, who had thrown their support behind El Camino. A group of them confronted LA Unified Local District Northwest Superintendent Vivian Ekchian about the sudden change in March at a West Hills Neighborhood Council meeting.
One of their concerns for the site was the district’s plan for a high school associated with Hale Charter Academy, a nearby affiliated charter school. The school is located in a residential neighborhood and residents preferred an elementary school, as a high school would increase in traffic.
At the West Hills Neighborhood Council meeting, Ekchian made a promise to the neighbors that is was at least a priority for her to have the school torn down. The demolition is a significant budget commitment for the district because the money has to come out of general funds, not bond funds earmarked for construction, because in order to use bond funds the demolition must be part of a new construction project. This was one reason the district had not previously torn down the schools, but Ekchian, who moved to her role in 2015, said it was a priority for her.
“Many community members have contacted me and said this school has been sitting there, it has been an eyesore and a problem for the community for 30 years. And we have met over time with officials from the school district, and there has always been an attempt at demolition it but never has materialized,” Ekchian said this week. “It was important for as a local district to make a commitment by which we stand and to show them that we follow through on our commitments. That’s why this demolition is significant, because it has been over three decades of frustration that is being addressed by us.”
Hovatter said he was not yet sure if he will construct fences around the empty lots, but for the moment he does not want to.
“I believe that it’s been an eyesore long enough. If we go and put a chain-link fence around it, it’s still going to be an eyesore,” he said. “We have included within our budget money to install a fence, but initially I want to see if that is acceptable to the surrounding neighborhood. Ultimately I’m going to end up doing what the neighbors want us to do. But a fence doesn’t really stop anyone from entering the campus.”
*UPDATED to show that five schools remain closed, while others are open or being used for other purposes.