Group Opposes Bid to Preserve Ambassador Hotel

Times Staff Writer

A community group used what would have been the 78th birthday of the late Robert F. Kennedy to advocate that the Ambassador Hotel, the scene of his assassination, be demolished -- rather than recycled, as preservationists advocate -- to make room for a new K-12 school.

At a news conference Thursday outside the Ambassador Hotel in the Wilshire district, members of the group, which calls itself RFK-12, carried signs in Korean, English and Spanish, asserting that turning the hotel into a school would be too expensive compared with tearing it down and building a new campus.

The surrounding neighborhood has overcrowded schools and buses thousands of its students away from the area because they cannot be enrolled locally, said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is part of the RFK-12 coalition. A new facility for as many as 4,400 students must be built more efficiently and quickly than a preservation effort would allow, Hernandez said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which bought the 24-acre hotel site to build a combination elementary, middle and high school, is expected to choose in the coming months from among five options, ranging from demolishing the hotel to reusing significant parts of it.

Razing the hotel and its outbuildings and replacing them with new structures would cost about $286 million and take four years, according to district estimates.

The option labeled "maximum reuse" would retain the hotel's original tower and several key sites, including the Embassy Ballroom, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and the coffee shop designed by architect Paul Williams. That has a price tag of about $381 million and would take about five years. Some of the money for that plan could come from state funds allocated for historical preservation.

But Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the Los Angeles Conservancy, which has been leading the drive for preservation of the hotel building, contended that the district's price and time estimates for that option are too high and are based on inaccurate and misleading information. A conservancy study has suggested it could be done for $213 million.

One of the speakers at Thursday's news conference was Paul Schrade, a former Kennedy aide who was wounded in the head when the U.S. senator from New York was shot to death June 5, 1968, after winning the California presidential primary. Schrade said he had often admired the conservancy's stance on issues of historical preservation. But "not this time," he said, calling the Ambassador a "wreck of a building."

The best way to pay tribute to Kennedy, Schrade said, would not be to erect a memorial or preserve the kitchen hallway where he was shot. Instead, he said, it would be to demonstrate the power of a community to come together, to take care of Los Angeles' poor and immigrant population. "Suffering does exist in the center of the city, and it must be healed," he said. "We must begin this project. We must fight for it with every ounce of energy we have."

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