L.A. Board Votes to Raze Historic Building

By Joetta L. Sack — October 20, 2004 4 min read
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The Los Angeles school board has narrowly approved a plan to demolish most of the historic Ambassador Hotel and build three schools on the site that will house more than 4,200 students and ease overcrowding in nearby schools.

The 4-3 vote on Oct. 12 ends a nearly 15-year saga that began when the board fought with developers to buy the building and its surrounding 24 acres to build badly needed new schools.

If all goes as planned, the new schools will open in 2008-09. One possible roadblock could come from the Los Angeles Conservancy, the main preservation group fighting for saving the structure, or other groups that may file lawsuits to delay the plans.

Last week’s decision was a victory for Roy Romer, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and board President Jose Huizar. After the vote, Mr. Huizar said that the new schools would allow the district to end the busing and year-round schedules that have been needed to cope with the overflow of students from the neighborhood around the hotel.

James A. McConnell, Jr., the district’s chief facility executive, called the board’s actions an “important milestone” for the project.

“We’re pleased, but the only thing that we celebrate here is ribbon cutting,” Mr. McConnell said, noting that there is a long way to go before the schools open. “It was a brilliant plan, and it was probably the only workable plan that was going to get the board’s support.”

Big Plans

In recent weeks, preservationists have stepped up efforts to save the building, which hosted several Academy Awards ceremonies and was frequented by numerous celebrity guests during its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. It was also where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary.

Mr. Romer’s compromise plan, called Heritage K-12, calls for demolishing most of the sprawling, 1920s-era hotel while restoring and reusing its famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub as a student theater. The plan also calls for reusing a Paul Williams-designed coffee shop as a teachers’ lounge, and restoring the elaborate ballroom ceiling as part of a new library.

The hotel site will accommodate an 800-student K-3 elementary school, a 1,000-student school for grades 4-8, and a 2,440-student high school—all of which may be built in the Spanish style of the original structure. The cost is estimated to be $318 million.

But the compromise plan did not satisfy everyone. Civil rights groups and members of the Kennedy family have called for totally demolishing the existing buildings in an effort to build schools more quickly.

Preservationists, meanwhile, argued that the main structure could be restored and reused as classrooms or office space for little more than it will cost to tear it down.

“We really feel a school district charged with teaching history should not be erasing history,” said Ken Bernstein, the director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. He said the group is undecided over whether it will file a lawsuit challenging the board’s construction plan.

A few days before the vote, school board member David Tokofsky unsuccessfully called for a new plan that would preserve the main hotel building and build the schools elsewhere on the site.

Restoring the hotel as a classroom building is feasible, and was one alternative considered by the school district, Mr. McConnell said. However, “at the end of the day, it would take longer, and we would spend more for a school that is in fact inferior,” he said.

Kennedys Weigh In

The plan adopted last week includes a new park to memorialize Sen. Kennedy.

One area not addressed in the plan is the kitchen pantry area where he was shot. A panel will be appointed to decide whether to move that wing of the building, at a cost of about $2 million, or have it demolished.

Members of the Kennedy family recently urged the board to demolish the entire structure, saying that new schools would be a more fitting tribute to Sen. Kennedy.

“The Ambassador Hotel has nothing to do with who my father was, or what he tried to do with his life,” Maxwell Kennedy, one of the senator’s sons, wrote in a Sept. 23 commentary in the Los Angeles Times. “I can imagine few things that would irritate him more than to have a financially strapped urban school district spend $2 million—money that should go to after-school programs or books or teachers’ salaries—to preserve a site of misery.”

The hotel, which is now surrounded by high-rise office buildings, has sat vacant since it closed in 1989. On occasion, it has been used as a set for movies and television shows.

After vying for years with developers, the school board purchased it in 2001 from a federal bankruptcy court for $76.5 million as a key part of its plans to build nearly 200 new schools over this decade to help ease severe overcrowding.

Some developers had offered more money for the prime site.

A lack of available land has spurred the district to buy any available site, and in some cases to use eminent domain to buy sites it deems suitable for schools. (“Scarcity of Property Is Growing Obstacle to Building Schools,” March 24, 2004.)

The Ambassador Hotel site, located on Wilshire Boulevard just west of the downtown area, is one of the last open spaces in that predominantly Latino and Asian community.


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