Downtown Los Angeles’s Edward R. Roybal Learning Center (aka Central Los Angeles High School #11), a colorful new high school just blocks from the heart of the city’s skyline, finally opened its doors for students on September 3 after a roughly 20-year wait. Yes, 20 years.
Formerly known as the Belmont Learning Center, Roybal, which sits over part of the Los Angeles Oil Field just west of the 110 Freeway, is one of the most notorious building projects in California history. Since its inception in 1988 the school, which has cost almost $400 million, has been delayed, partially demolished, in limbo, and then, finally redesigned by local architects WWCOT.
First designed by McClarand Vasquez & Partners, the school was largely complete when construction, which started in 1997, was halted in 1999 after tests revealed methane and hydrogen sulfide gases in the ground. Later examination in 2002 showed that the site sat on a major earthquake fault. The school’s fate was unclear until WWCOT took over in 2003, starting construction in 2006. The contractor was Hensel Phelps, and the project manager was Rick Hijazi of TBI and Associates, a consultant to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
“Our lawyers advised against it,” said Andrea Cohen Gehring, design principal at WWCOT. “But we decided that someone had to step up and something positive had to happen on the site.” The result, she said, was incredibly rewarding. “It’s probably the most interesting, complex, and exciting thing we’ve ever done in the history of this firm,” she said.
And certainly one of the most challenging. First the firm led the removal of mold and vermin and the replacement of deteriorating systems from the long-abandoned site, which Gehring referred to as a “new ruin.” To manage underground gases the team built a mitigation system that traps gases through sand, soil, and a plastic membrane and when levels are high vents them through conduits located in and around the school. To manage the earthquake threat the firm ensured that all buildings were set back the minimum fifty feet from the fault. That meant demolishing one of the school’s four classroom buildings and its administration building. Brand new replacements include another classroom building and a multipurpose building that includes a cafeteria, a library, a bookstore, music and dance rooms, and the school’s maintenance offices.
The final result of the 2,800-student, 310,000-square-foot, 104-classroom high school is a thoughtful merger of the new buildings and the original four-story design. The aborted first attempt at the school cost about $175 million and the new work cost $200 million, said Hijazi. To save (now limited) money the firm maintained the original staggered structures, which line Beaudry and 1st avenues, wherever possible. They covered the school’s formerly red colors with a patchwork of green, white, yellow, and beige meant to reflect the city’s desert environment and create visual interest. “We decided to create a tapestry that would be less bulky and create a strong pattern,” said Gehring. Its colors and composition are further echoed in the landscaping, by Rios Clementi Hale, a centralized series of pathways and green spaces dominated by draught-tolerant plants. The lower-lying and sleeker new buildings lie on one side of this inviting central green and the bulkier, more institutional original buildings wrap around the other.
The firm also decentralized the once behemoth school, creating small learning communities that are differentiated inside by color and each have their own administration facilities (some classrooms were turned into offices to facilitate this). To take advantage of the climate, WWCOT not only centered activity on the large green courtyard but built outdoor stairways, cafeteria seating, and covered walkways, and created dramatic overhanging rooftops for the new buildings. A large metal mesh screen on First and Beaudry serves as the main marquee for the school for those in the bustle of streets downtown. From the protected main green one sees the skyscrapers of downtown shoot up dramatically behind the rest of the school.
The 33.5-acre site contains several fields and a large gym, and just next to the school Mia Lehrer Landscape Architects created the rolling 9.5-acre Vista Hermosa Park, which is shared by the school and the local community. It is the first new park in downtown LA in decades.
After so many years on the project everyone involved has finally let out a sigh of relief. “It’s just fantastic,” said Hijazi. The first iteration of the school was a mess, but this time, he added, the project went surprisingly smoothly. “There were arguments, but we worked together seamlessly, like a team, and finally got this thing done.”