At Shalhevet High School, the classrooms seem a bit large, the layout a bit odd, and the cafeteria and gym … well, there is no cafeteria or gym.
That could all be about to change.
The property that the Modern Orthodox school purchased in 1999 on South Fairfax Avenue will undergo a massive makeover if a proposed $14.2 million sale of the southern half of the 113,000-square-foot property to Alliance Residential Co. is approved by the city, according to Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school.
Once acquired, Alliance Residential plans to turn its half of the property, including part of the school’s main building and all of the annex, into luxury condominiums. Shalhevet would demolish the northern half of the property — about 50,000 square feet — to make room for what Segal says will be a new, $10 million, state-of-the-art high school.
“This [current building], while serviceable, is not meeting the educational needs that we want to provide for our students,” Segal said.
According to the Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s student-run newspaper, school officials hoped that the sale would have been completed last summer, which would have allowed construction to begin this past July. The city has not yet granted Alliance Residential permits for its construction plans, however, and it is weighing an appeal by area residents who object to the company’s plans, Segal wrote in an e-mail.
“The zoning administrator’s ruling is pretty clear that this is a project that should absolutely be approved,” Segal wrote. “We are confident the appeal will be denied and the project will move forward.”
Although administrators hoped to have the new school ready for the start of classes in fall 2014, Segal wrote that he now expects construction to run from January 2014 through January 2015. But, he added, “Our contract with Alliance allows us to stay on our existing site for up to 15 months after we start construction.”
During a walking tour of the massive property, which was purchased for $6.8 million from Westside Hospital, Segal discussed some of the challenges teachers and administrators have faced by using a space that was not built for educational purposes.
“This is an old hospital and a morgue,” Segal said. “The technology is jury-rigged for the most part.”
From the lead-filled walls that make wireless Internet connectivity a challenge to classrooms that were designed as examination rooms instead of the flexible spaces preferred in modern education, Segal said that a new building would allow Shalhevet to design a space that fits its educational philosophy.
Included in the new building would be a rooftop patio, a two-story indoor basketball court, two computer labs, a cafeteria, multiuse rooms and a beit midrash that, as Segal said, is designed more for learning than for gathering many students. Plans show that the new Shalhevet will have 16 classrooms. The current building has 17.
At 36,000 square feet, the new building would be significantly smaller than the current one, which has 160 students this year, but could accommodate many more. Segal said future enrollment would be capped at 240 students.
Additionally, the $14.2 million in proceeds from the proposed sale would relieve Shalhevet of some of its financial pressures, including $12 million in debt and an annual $600,000 mortgage on its current property. For a school with an annual budget of
$5 million, Segal said that those figures are not sustainable.
Although Shalhevet has not yet entered the “public phase” of its fundraising campaign, Segal said that the school has already raised nearly $3 million and hopes to raise another $10 million to $12 million, which would cover construction costs with some left over for an endowment. He added that once the school raises $4 million it will benefit from a $1 million matching endowment from the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund, a program of BJE‑Builders of Jewish Education and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
While there appears to be widespread support for a new building within the Shalhevet community, the current building has certainly provided its share of memories. High school senior and Boiling Point editor-in-chief Sarah Soroudi characterized the change as “bittersweet.”
“We still really enjoy the kind of homey feel of the old building,” Soroudi said. “A new building will obviously be great and we’ll have so many new opportunities, but I think we’ll miss this place.”
Jason Feld, who teaches Jewish history and Jewish philosophy and helps incorporate technology into Shalhevet’s curriculum, echoed Soroudi’s sentiment.
“We love the current situation. There’s a certain intimacy. This is the building that we know and love,” Feld said. “But from an educational perspective, and certainly from an educational technological perspective, being able to move into a new space that is designed for education and comports with our mission is really quite a blessing.”
Math and science teacher Christopher Buckley said that one advantage of the current massive building is that “it was always easy to find empty classrooms where you could have meetings with another teacher or another student.” But, he concluded, “It will be great to have a school that’s built from the ground up as a school.”
Co-founder and former head of school Jerry Friedman, who currently sits on Shalhevet’s board, said that while he looks forward to providing an indoor gym, auditorium and new science labs for students, Shalhevet’s distinctiveness stems from its mission, not its building.
“Shalhevet is Shalhevet whether it’s in the present structure or a new building,” Friedman said. “When you really come down to it, Shalhevet is unique not because of any edifice.”
Friedman fondly recalled when, shortly before Shalhevet moved into its current space from the Westside Jewish Community Center, he brought students to tour the hospital that would soon be a school. The first thing students asked was, “Where’s the morgue?”
His response: “In this hospital, nobody dies. It was a good hospital. It’s going to be a great school.”
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