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11th-Hour Proposal Would Save Ambassador Building

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky offered a last-minute proposal Sunday to preserve the historic Ambassador Hotel’s main structure while building classrooms for up to 4,200 students elsewhere on the site.

His proposal came three days before the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on whether to approve a plan supported by Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer that would preserve parts of the hotel, but raze most of it to build a kindergarten-through-12th-grade complex for the same number of students.

Tokofsky acknowledged his alternative did not include such details as costs, architectural plans and exactly how many students the complex could serve had not been worked out.

Romer’s proposal has come under fire since it was released several weeks ago. The Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group, says it does not go far enough to restore the hotel. Another organization supports demolishing the hotel to build classrooms and does not want the district to spend any money on preservation.

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The family of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in the hotel in 1968, also wants it demolished.

“A compromise is available that meets everyone’s goals,” Tokofsky said Sunday as he stood in front of the fenced-off 24-acre Ambassador site on Wilshire Boulevard.

It is unclear what the board will do Tuesday. Board President Jose Huizar, who sides with Romer, and board member Mike Lansing, who wants to raze the entire structure, each criticized Tokofsky’s idea Sunday as a tactic to delay any decision from being made now. Board member Marlene Canter said she respected Tokofsky’s vision for the site and was still weighing her options. The other three board members, who have not said which way they are leaning, could not be reached for comment.

District administrators said Tokofsky’s suggestion would not provide enough classrooms or recreational areas. Romer could not be reached for comment.

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Tokofsky said the board needed to “cool its heels” before rushing to make a decision, and should delay its vote by at least 180 days to study his idea.

Under his suggestion, the district would build an elementary school and a soccer field on a six-acre field in front of the hotel. Eleven acres behind the hotel would house a middle school and a high school.

Tokofsky suggested demolishing the hotel’s patio, health club, east garden, pool and cabana, but saving the main building and its 400 hotel rooms. Those rooms could be leased as office space, Tokofsky said. Other uses could include using the structure for a teacher training center, a charter school, low-income housing for teachers or other district needs, he said.

The district could cover restoration and maintenance costs for the hotel through tax credits, fundraising and by allowing it to be rented for filming movies, Tokofsky said.

It also could save millions of dollars by holding conferences at the Ambassador instead of renting space in other hotels and relocating staff members into offices there, he said.

Glen Gritzner, a special assistant to the superintendent, called Tokofsky’s plan a reasonable attempt to satisfy competing interests, but said it did not offer enough open space for students to eat lunch or hang out. He added that it might be difficult to win approval for a charter school on the site.

The plan also would require an environmental study, which could prolong construction of much-needed classrooms, he said.

“This plan has a lot of uncertainty to it,” Gritzner said, adding that officials have not had a chance to study it in depth.

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Romer’s $318-million plan would demolish virtually the entire hotel and its outbuildings, preserving only the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and the Paul Williams-designed coffee shop beneath it. Parts of the Embassy Ballroom would be incorporated into a library.

Ethel Kennedy and her children have asked that all remnants of the Ambassador be removed and replaced with new school buildings.

About 3,800 students are bused out of neighborhoods around the hotel to less-crowded schools elsewhere. The district has long planned to use the hotel site as part of a program to build 160 schools over about a decade. The debate has always been over how best to use the hotel, which closed in 1989, for educational purposes, how much of it should be preserved and how much money should be spent for preservation.

The Los Angeles Conservancy wants the district to preserve most of the hotel. It says Romer’s proposal would destroy too much of the site.

Linda Dishman, the conservancy’s executive director, said the group was thrilled that Tokofsky came forward with a new idea. “We believe it is a true win-win and a compromise unlike what is currently on the table,” she said.

The RFK-12 Coalition wants to demolish the hotel to build a school as soon as possible without any of the voter-approved school construction bond money being used for preservation efforts. Romer’s plan would allocate $15 million of the project’s budget for preservation.

Steven Stamstad, a spokesman for RFK-12, said a plan similar to Tokofsky’s was considered and rejected because it would not house enough students.

“We’re open to any strong suggestion,” he said. “But I can’t imagine we’ve missed all of this. If this is, indeed, a home run then, yes, we’re open to any solutions.”

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