L.A. Unified Unveils 5 Plans for Ambassador Site

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles school officials unveiled five alternatives Monday for using the historic Ambassador Hotel property as the future home of as many as three new schools to relieve overcrowding in one of the city's most densely populated corridors.

The plans range from razing the closed hotel on Wilshire Boulevard to converting the seven-story building into a school complex and adding new facilities. In some scenarios, the hotel's fabled Cocoanut Grove nightclub would be turned into an auditorium and the Embassy Ballroom into a library.

District officials, who are set to release environmental studies for each proposal today, said they wanted to gather public input before making a decision in October. Public hearings will be held over the next 60 days, with historic preservation one of the key issues.

In one proposal, the hotel could be demolished to make way for elementary, middle and high school campuses serving nearly 4,400 students from the immediate area.

In another, the entire seven-story hotel and its 24-acre property could be turned into a complex of three schools, with ball fields, gyms and other amenities constructed.

Under two other plans, parts of the 80-year-old hotel -- the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination and once a stomping ground for luminaries such as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald -- would be removed to make way for new elementary, middle and high schools.

The school district, in a fifth option, would lease or sell about six acres along Wilshire Boulevard for commercial use and, with additions, convert the hotel into a middle school and high school. The district would probably have to condemn land in the adjoining community to make space for the elementary school and ball fields.

District officials acknowledged that converting the hotel into a school complex would probably interfere with the historic integrity of the buildings. But they said the need for classrooms is so overwhelming in the Mid-Wilshire community that they have little choice.

"We're very sympathetic with the values of preservation," Supt. Roy Romer said.

"But to those who value preservation ... we have to find money."

The district, Romer said, has only enough bond funds in hand to pay for the demolition-and-rebuild option -- $286 million. But he did not express a preference among the five plans.

Converting the hotel into a school complex would cost as much as $382 million. The plan to lease six acres of the property and build an elementary school and ball fields elsewhere would cost $404 million, the most expensive of the alternatives.

Preservationists said they would fight any plan to demolish or significantly alter the hotel, which was visited by every president from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon and whose Cocoanut Grove nightclub was a premiere gathering place for celebrities during the 1930s and '40s.

"This is one of the handful of truly significant Los Angeles sites that we believe cannot be lost to our city's future," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Bernstein said his organization recognizes the need for more classroom space in the Mid-Wilshire area, where the five schools in the immediate vicinity of the hotel already bus out nearly 4,000 students daily.

The conservancy supports the option of converting the hotel into school space without losing any of the main structure.

L.A. Unified bought the Ambassador Hotel in December 2001 after a 10-year legal battle with an investment group once led by real estate magnate Donald Trump. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council voted to support the construction of one or more schools at the site -- leaving it up to the district to review the "historic aspects of the site."

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