After some last-minute political arm-twisting by two Los Angeles legislators, state officials Wednesday night gave the Los Angeles Unified School District the $50 million it needs to proceed with plans to build a high school on the historic Ambassador Hotel site.
The grant by the state Allocation Board is likely to set off a lengthy court battle with New York developer Donald Trump, who owns the land and wants to put the world's tallest office building there. Trump has pledged not to sell the 24-acre mid-Wilshire parcel to the district.
"They are no closer to having a school than they were when they came up here," said an angry Barbara Res, a vice president of the Trump Organization.
Although the district can acquire the property through eminent domain, court proceedings could drag on for years and raise the cost of the land far above the $50 million allocated by the state.
"That property is worth a lot more than they will be able to come up with," said Res, predicting that it ultimately will cost the district more than $150 million to buy the site purchased by Trump for $64 million last year. "When they realize that, the school district will walk away . . . with no school."
But a euphoric school board President Jackie Goldberg expressed confidence Wednesday that the district will be able to build on the site it has long coveted.
The surprise decision to fund the school came after months of delays and two close votes earlier Wednesday to reject the project by the seven-member state board. The Allocation Board's own staff had recommended that the board vote against the school district's request, contending that cheaper sites are available. Composed of legislators and state officials, the board hands out school construction funds.
The earlier votes left Goldberg in tears, unable to speak as she tried to appeal to the board to reconsider.
Assembly members Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Richard D. Katz (D-Sylmar)--both supporters of a school on the site--huddled briefly with Allocation Board member Robert Wright, who represented the state Department of General Services on the board. On a hasty third roll call, Wright provided the crucial fourth vote in favor of the funding.
Afterwards, Katz and Waters would only say they "clarified the issues" for Wright, who does not sit regularly on the board.
But one official who asked not to be identified contended the message was more direct--that Waters, who sits on the Assembly's powerful Ways and Means Committee, "threatened to hold up (Wright's department's) budget." Waters denied exerting such pressure.
Other panel members voting for the funding were Assembly members Teresa Hughes (D-Los Angeles), Robert J. Campbell (D-Richmond) and Diane Kirkham of the state Department of Education.
The cavernous hearing room erupted in cheers and shouts when the final vote was taken, giving the district the go-ahead for the project. Supporters mobbed Waters as she tried to quickly leave the room, calling her a "hero."
Although the Allocation Board scaled back the school district's request for $73.3 million to buy the entire 23 1/2-acre Ambassador site, it granted the district $50 million to buy the rear 17 acres, leaving the frontage along Wilshire Boulevard free for commercial development, presumably by Trump.
But Res said her boss is not interested in developing the front strip because the plan to put a school next to it would crowd the property and make commercial ventures unprofitable.
Goldberg estimated the back 17 acres will cost about $46.7 million, including penalties the court could order the district to pay Trump to compensate for potential losses in being unable to develop the entire parcel.
She said if the costs go higher, the cash-strapped district will finance the rest with a 20-year, low-interest loan. The district intends to return to the Allocation Board when plans to construct the school buildings are completed. District officials have no cost estimate for the buildings yet.
"The important thing is we will have the school that our children have needed for so long," Goldberg said. Like others at the hearing, she was visibly shocked by the swift turn of events.
Although the Ambassador school still is a long way from being built, the grant was a major victory for the school district, which has searched for years for a high school site in the mid-Wilshire area, where 4,000 neighborhood students must be bused from overcrowded schools at a cost of nearly $6 million a year.
When the aging Ambassador Hotel closed its doors in January, 1989, district officials believed they had finally found a parcel that would not require the demolition of low-income housing. They began making plans to purchase the land and construct a 2,500-student school.
But Trump threw a monkey wrench into those plans when he bought the property last year and announced plans to build a commercial complex, launching an intense battle between the district and his organization.
Trump's group organized residents and business owners in the area, enlisted the help of city officials and heavily lobbied state representatives to kill the district's plan, arguing that putting a school on the expensive parcel was neither the wisest use of state funds nor the best way to revitalize the Wilshire corridor's flagging commercial district.
School board members countered with heavy lobbying of their own--painting the wealthy Trump as a man bent on denying the district's poor and minority children the right to attend school in their own neighborhoods. They were aided by parent and community protests that included two busloads of supporters that came from Los Angeles to Sacramento Wednesday to plead the district's case.
The $50 million is the most the state has ever allocated to buy land for a school and represents a substantial portion of the $800 million construction bond issue on the June ballot.