In Los Angeles, a unique plan to dull the roar of jets

City officials have agreed to soundproof schools and cut pollution as LAX prepares for an $11 billion expansion.

Since 1966, Danny Tabor has walked past several local public schools whose boarded windows allow no daylight to fill classrooms. Aging air filtration systems circulate the smell of diesel fuel from landing jets that roar overhead every 90 seconds, dropping soot on children at recess.

"Generations [of students] have come and gone through school here with rattling windows, teachers they couldn't hear, and no natural light in their classroom experience," says Mr. Tabor, an economic consultant. Residents of these mostly low-income Latino and black communities say they have taken their complaints to local officials over the decades to no avail - "leaving kids to equate education with a kind of prison-fortress mentality," he says.

Now the nearby Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is poised to begin an $11 billion expansion. Instead of a flood of environmental lawsuits that traditionally halt urban expansion projects, the community took a different tack from the outset. As a result, the city has committed $500 million to soundproof schools, upgrade polluting airport vehicles, and study how the expansion will impact the quality of life.

After months of negotiating between at least 26 community groups - from grass-roots coalitions, and environmentalists, to airport and city officials - the unprecedented agreement is being lauded as a national model for giant public works projects. Following a trend begun here in 1998 known as community benefit agreements - a way for developers and community organizations to ensure that local residents share in benefits from major developments - modernizing LAX is the first-ever agreed upon project with a public entity, in this case, Los Angeles World Airports.

"What city officials and local residents have achieved here is a model for what can happen all over the country if there is a mechanism for getting all players to the table from the beginning," says Peter Dreier, professor of politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles. "This process raises the bar in terms of putting community priorities at the forefront of concern."

City officials are elated partly because lengthy litigations by disgruntled residents are significant stumbling blocks in expansion proposals. In the LAX agreement, nearly half of the $500 million is slated for outfitting schools with special soundproof windows. Another $30 million is slated for soundproofing homes, while $15 million is going to airport-related job-training programs in which priority will be given to local residents. There is also money set aside to assess the impact of toxic emissions on community health.

"This was really ... eased this whole project through," says Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who is credited with helping to revive the stalled expansion project. She in turn credits Mayor James Hahn for setting in motion the idea of involving community members from the outset. She also credits the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has pioneered the use of community benefits agreements in several other local projects.

"This concept is also exciting from the standpoint of social justice," says Jerilyn Mendoza, director of the Los Angeles office of the Environmental Justice Project. "Usually those who are bearing the heaviest burden in expansion of airports are low-income people of color - the least equipped to fight for their own interests."

Although city and business leaders are congratulating themselves with the prospect of a done deal, many said the going has not been easy. No fewer than 26 groups ultimately made up the coalition that forged the final plan. "We had a list of 171 concerns we took to [Los Angeles World Airports] at the outset, and they laughed at some of them," recalls Tabor, including ideas by young people for a skate park and covered soccer field. "We had people sitting across the table who are usually on opposite sides trying to work together for common purpose. We all had to really learn what were the perspectives and motivations of the other side."

The idea has yet to be formally approved by the FAA - and is expected to be reviewed in the next two months - but agents have already given indication they have agreed to the settlement points in principle. They have also given indication that if objections come up, they will try to address concerns on all sides.

"No one can say at the moment what is both legal and feasible about these ideas," says FAA spokesman Donn Walker. "What's important to note at this point is that the process with which this was negotiated should become a model for airport expansions throughout the country."

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