It's not easy finding sites to build 100 new schools.

With so little land available, the Los Angeles Unified School District has focused its attention on acquiring properties where businesses currently operate, or where commercial redevelopment has been planned.

In the ensuing debate over jobs today versus an educated workforce tomorrow, commercial ventures may come out on the short end of the stick.

The school board must identify 100 new-school locations throughout L.A. to accommodate an increase of nearly 80,000 students projected in the next eight years. If sites and designs are not completed by June 30, 2000, the district risks losing $1.5 billion in funding from Proposition 1A, a state bond measure that will provide about half the monies needed to build all the schools.

School board officials say they have not focused their attention on any single type of property. Rather, they are considering all suitable sites. But others point out that political considerations favor retail sites over others. The scandal over contamination on the Belmont Learning Complex site has all but eliminated most industrial properties from consideration. And the growing activism of homeowners has made it increasingly difficult to win approval to take over residential areas.

"Their job as far as trying to find school (sites) is impossible," said David Zoraster, vice president with the appraisal division of CB Richard Ellis Inc., which works with the city on eminent domain acquisitions. "There's no vacant land. They cannot take houses, politically, so they're left with industrial land that's polluted, or commercial."

So far, the school board has given the go-ahead for feasibility studies on 21 possible sites, including a parcel adjacent to the Panorama Mall in Panorama City, the former Gemco site in Arleta, and the Robinsons-May store and regional buying headquarters along with the Valley Plaza Mall in North Hollywood.

If the sites pass environmental and other tests, the school board can either acquire the properties in an escrow purchase or exercise its power of eminent domain.

Of the three, only the Gemco site is vacant and without redevelopment plans. Mexican conglomerate Grupo Gigante had acquired the property last year with plans to build a supermarket and shopping center, but those plans were scuttled when it was learned that the LAUSD had been eyeing the property. Gigante has since put the property up for sale.

Robinsons-May is not likely to go quietly.

"We absolutely want to stay where we are," said Rhonda West, a spokeswoman for the company's St. Louis-based parent. "Moving either operation would cause significant disruption to our business."

A portion of the Valley Plaza site is currently in escrow for purchase by Arba Group, a developer that has also been negotiating with other property owners in the shopping center to acquire additional parcels for redevelopment. Ira Smedra, Arba president, has not halted plans as yet.

The Panorama City site, which includes a dilapidated shopping center, several small businesses and about 24 homes, was slated for redevelopment into a town center with shops, activities for children and some social services offices. Socially Responsible Investing LLC acquired the property in June and had pumped about $350,000 into designs for the center when it was learned last month that the school board was studying the site. Cary Lefton, a principal with the development partnership, said planning for the center is ongoing, but no leases can be signed until the board makes its decision.

"If (a school) is what they really need, and it appears they do, it's just as socially responsible," said Lefton. "We were just disappointed we can't see our project through. It's a loss of jobs and tax revenue to the city."

Bob Niccum, director of real estate acquisition for LAUSD, said it's not the board's job to weigh in on the debate over schools versus the economy. "We're responsible for making sure kids get educated," he said. "The board takes into account impacts on homes and businesses and so forth, but ultimately, what the board is responsible for is education."

Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City, said, "It's short-sighted for any community to say, 'Let's take a 10- or 15-acre site and build a supermarket,' and say that benefits society more than a new school."

Others, however, argue that school officials are not acting in the best interest of the community because they have ignored parcels that would not involve as much economic hardship if converted to school sites.

"If they kick us out, how am I going to make a living?" said Matias Meza, owner of La Sierra Nightclub and Restaurant, which employs seven members of his family as well as 36 other workers. Meza said he has identified several alternative sites close to his Panorama City restaurant that are vacant. "I'm not against putting in a school, no way, but they should be trying to find a better location that doesn't hurt so many people," he said.

The district's targeting of the Panorama City site, which currently encompasses about 24 homes, has angered a cross-section of the community because many believe a remodeled shopping center would revitalize the area.

"We're just starting to get this area to come up again, and the community doesn't want another school that's going to bring more blight," said Shannon Campos, whose home is situated just outside the area that would be cleared for a school.

School board member Caprice Young said views like those stem from the types of schools that were built in the past huge institutions that house as many as 4,000 children.

"People worry about crime. They worry about graffiti. They worry about having teen-agers running through the neighborhood with all their teen-age hormones," Young said. "Part of that (worry) is because historically the school system has built schools that look like prisons. There's just too many people in one place."

Others attribute community opposition to a school-development process that has become outmoded. "We haven't had the money in a significant time to build schools, so the bureaucracy still has procedures from 15 or 20 years ago, and there's been in this city a revolution of homeowners and groups," said David Tokofsky, a school board member who chairs the facilities committee. "So it takes a wakeup call for that to merge into the bureaucracy."

With so many different interest groups likely to be affected by each selection, officials admit it will be hard to please everyone.

"For every concern, there is a parallel concern which is the opposite," Niccum said. "If you say, 'Don't build it here because it's a high-traffic area,' the counter is, 'Don't build it there because it's a nice quiet neighborhood.' "

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