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Challenges Face Board’s Plan for School on Ambassador Site

Times Education Writer

A Los Angeles Unified School District plan to acquire and demolish the Ambassador Hotel and replace it with a high school faces possible challenges from the City Council, preservationists and the investors who earlier this month agreed to buy the property.

Los Angeles Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, said he strongly opposes construction of a high school on the Mid-Wilshire property and will urge state legislators not to fund the project. “It would amount to nothing more than a graffiti mill,” he said of the proposed school. “It would destroy the business community there.”

Holden’s opposition is significant because demolition of the historic hotel will need City Council approval, according to a 1987 agreement reached with the hotel’s current owners and binding on the investment group that plans to close escrow on the hotel and surrounding land in September. Holden said he believes that requirement would apply even if the school district obtains the property.

Representatives for both the J. Myer Schine family, which now owns the hotel, and the buyer, Anglo-Wilshire Partners, said Tuesday that the school board’s action would not disrupt their deal. Sydney Knott, spokeswoman for Anglo-Wilshire, said the firm is going ahead with plans for a large-scale commercial and residential project for the land, although it has not yet decided on whether the hotel building itself will be saved.

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Anglo-Wilshire, she said, understands the need for more classrooms but believes that its own development plan “is more compatible with the broader interests of the surrounding community"--an argument supported by area business groups. Knott said it was too early to say whether Anglo-Wilshire will fight in court possible eminent domain proceedings by the school board.

School district officials said they will attempt to buy the property. But if the investment group refuses to sell, officials said, the district is prepared to go to court to claim the property through eminent domain.

Any public agency has the right to stake a claim to private property under eminent domain. The school district could ask a jury to set a fair selling price for the property.

Might Sue Board

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Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Conservancy said it might sue the school board for what the preservation group claims is an inadequate environmental impact study of the demolition and building plan. “We certainly will fight demolition, whether by a developer or by the school district,” said Teresa Grimes, a conservancy officer.

The conservancy believes that the 68-year-old hotel, the former resting spot of Hollywood royalty and American presidents, can be turned into a high school or an office building with reconstruction, according to Grimes. “Our complaint is that the school district never really explored the adaptive reuse of the building,” she said.

The school district, however, says converting the vacant hotel into the 2,000-student high school badly needed by the neighborhood would be too expensive and impractical. And building a high school on other sites in the area would mean ripping down homes while the Ambassador plan avoids displacing any residents, officials said.

‘Displace Tons of People’

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“I’m not looking for a fight with the city or the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce. But I haven’t seen any alternative that does not displace tons of people,” said school board President Jackie Goldberg, whose district includes the Ambassador land and who was a leader in board’s vote Monday for the plan.

The most important issue, Goldberg said, is that many neighborhood students are bused to distant campuses because Mid-Wilshire and downtown high schools are overcrowded. “I want those kids off the bus,” she said.

The 23.5-acre property is actually about 17 acres smaller than the amount of land the state recommends for such a senior high school, according to Bonnie James, the school district’s administrator for building services. But that is not unusual in densely populated Los Angeles, he said.

So the school board would have to reject any compromise that would place the high school to the rear of the land while keeping the Wilshire frontage for commercial buildings, James said. “There are no plans not to use the entire acreage,” he said.

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$100 Million Cost

Early plans call for a school building of about 175,000 square feet and as high as four stories, with land for playing fields. To acquire the Ambassador land and build the high school will cost about $100 million, according to district officials.

Lester Crown, a Schine son-in-law who is in the family business, declined Tuesday to reveal how much Anglo-Wilshire is paying for the property. However, in a telephone interview from Chicago, Crown said the purchasers were “well aware of the school board’s interest before they entered into the agreement.”

The Ambassador and its spacious grounds are considered one of the last large parcels of land in central Los Angeles available for big-scale development. The hotel, which closed last January, was home to the once-glamorous Cocoanut Grove night club and was the scene of the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy after he had won the presidential primary in California.

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The Ambassador Hotel Fight

The 68-year-old hotel was on the market for five years before an agreement was reached earlier this month for the J. Myer Schine family to sell it to Anglo-Wilshire Partners, an investment group, for an undisclosed price. The sale has not been completed. Anglo-Wilshire plans to use the site for residential-commercial development that might include a hotel.

The Los Angeles Unified School District wants to tear down the hotel and surrounding buildings and build a high school on the 23.5-acre site. It has said it will go to court if necessary to obtain the land.

The school building could be four stories high and would accommodate 2,000 students from the surrounding area. The district says as many as 9,000 students of high school age live within a nine-block radius of the hotel site.

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The hotel is currently valued at between $50 million and $100 million. The district estimates it could acquire the site and build a new school for about $100 million.


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