Unbroken Ground

When the city spends half a million dollars and nothing happens, does it make a sound? Yes, eventually. At the end of January, the controller's office emitted an agonized squawk over $479,219 in city funds given since 2001 to Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), a nonprofit lacking construction expertise, to build an experimental "living classroom" in the Bayview. The building would have solar panels, a "green roof" made of soil and native plants to minimize storm-water runoff, and wetland pools to naturally treat wastewater.

Yes, it was a groundbreaking idea — one that, unfortunately, hasn't yet broken ground. Completion dates for LEJ's project have come and gone. The newest deadline is December 2007.

The controller's office discovered the long overdue living classroom project during an audit of the Department of Environment's grant-making process.

So why all the delays? It turns out that it's difficult to build something when neither the city department nor its grantee have experience building anything. "We would never grant a construction project again," says Jared Blumenfeld, the director of the Department of the Environment.

Sudeep Rao, LEJ's executive director, says he understands concerns over why nothing has been built all these years. "That's definitely a fair question," he allows. "It's just if you understand the context and the nature of the project, you realize it's more complicated."

The living classroom project was funded by an environmental justice grant program that tried to redress the wrongs inflicted on Bayview-Hunters Point by two nearby power plants. But each year brought new, unforseen difficulties: The group struggled with several site changes, design modifications, and arguments with the city over funding.

Rao says he's confident that LEJ will meet its deadline this time; construction drawings for the new design are complete, and the building permits have been submitted. "I'm just waiting for the ribbon-cutting ceremony when this is all over," Rao says.

We're waiting, too.

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