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Board OKs Romer Plan

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Board of Education narrowly voted Tuesday to build a $318-million school for 4,200 students on the site of the historic Ambassador Hotel, once frequented by celebrities and politicians and the site of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

The plan for the Ambassador, approved on a 4-3 vote, was backed by schools Supt. Roy Romer, and calls for saving some historically significant elements but demolishing most of the hotel in favor of an elementary school, middle school and high school. Under the plan, which was one of five being considered by the board, the Los Angeles Unified School District would preserve the hotel’s arcade of stores, a coffee shop designed by architect Paul Williams and the historic Cocoanut Grove nightclub while razing most of the hotel, including its lobby, hotel rooms and adjacent bungalows.

“This is a victory,” said board President Jose Huizar, who supported Romer’s proposal, called the Heritage K-12 plan.

The board’s decision ends one chapter in the life of the hotel that has played a significant role in the history of Los Angeles and represents one of the last pieces of open space along the densely packed Wilshire Corridor.

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The school district has fought to gain control of the hotel site for almost 15 years as a way to ease overcrowding in neighboring schools.

At the meeting Tuesday, board members clashed over how to best deal with the historic aspects of the hotel while creating more classroom space. The three board members who opposed the superintendent’s proposal were Mike Lansing, Jon Lauritzen and David Tokofsky.

During a lengthy public hearing, more than 30 speakers -- including civil rights leader Dolores Huerta; Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles); Kennedy’s son, Maxwell Kennedy; and a host of community leaders, activists and concerned citizens -- made poignant, sometimes tearful requests to alternately preserve the hotel, tear it down, or find a compromise.

Ken Bernstein, the director of preservation for the Los Angeles Conservancy, told board members that city residents “would surely never forget the demolition of the Ambassador.” Nor, he added, would they forget “the elected officials who sent in the wrecking ball.”

Conservancy officials said that the group’s board will meet in the next few weeks to decide whether to take legal action against the district.

“I had no idea it would be such a difficult decision,” Lauritzen said to his colleagues before ultimately voting against the measure. He said he supported the preservation of the hotel.

For Romer, the Ambassador decision represents a linchpin in his plans to ease overcrowding and end busing in the nation’s second-largest school district as well as a test of his own abilities to win support of a majority of the board. He was openly ebullient after the board vote. “This is a big night,” he said. “It reminds me of how you make progress here -- with considerable difficulty.”

Since the Ambassador closed in 1989, it has passed through a number of owners, including Donald Trump, who had called for razing the hotel and replacing it with a 125-story office and residential structure. But all the while, the Ambassador has been the focus of the conservancy’s efforts to preserve the site and the district’s interest in converting it into a school. The school district bought the property in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 2001 for $76.5 million.

The hotel, which was designed by architect Myron Hunt and constructed on a former dairy farm along Wilshire Boulevard between Vermont and Normandie avenues, helped push the city of Los Angeles west from downtown.

Almost immediately after the Ambassador Hotel opened on Jan. 1, 1921, it became one of the city’s grand palaces, a place where movie stars, politicians, financiers and others mingled and were entertained. Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill were guests there, as were presidents, kings and princes. Some of the first Academy Awards ceremonies were held in the hotel’s ballroom.

But the hotel established a special, if sordid, place in history on June 5, 1968, when Kennedy was assassinated in a pantry off the hotel kitchen on the night he won the California Democratic primary.

Under the compromise plan, a blue ribbon panel will be appointed to decide whether, or how, to preserve the pantry -- although school officials have said that it will at the very least have to be displaced from its current location in the hotel during construction.

As the board vote neared, the high-profile lobbying of board members by all sides intensified. Celebrities such as Diane Keaton, representing the conservancy, and Martin Sheen, acting as an advocate for a group that included members of Kennedy’s family, have argued their positions. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and eight of her children issued a statement calling on the district to clear the site and build a school there as quickly as possible.

The school district has estimated that 3,800 students are bused out of the nine square blocks around the hotel each day to relieve overcrowding.

The site is one of 160 new schools that the district plans to build in the next eight years. Yet, along with the Belmont Learning Center, which was approved by the board last year after lengthy delays, it has long been a focus of intense public scrutiny.

Members of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, which oversees the district’s ambitious $14-billion school building program, recommended that the board not spend any money for historic preservation. Bond dollars, said civil rights attorney and committee Vice Chairwoman Connie Rice, “must go to getting kids off the buses and getting them into high quality schools in their neighborhood.”

“There’s a lot of heat on this board,” Huizar said. “But we have been circling and circling around for years. It’s time to make a decision and move on.”

The plan, he acknowledged, “is not perfect.” But it preserves the building’s most memorable features, he said.

Others disagreed.

“To call it heritage is heresy,” said Tokofsky, who earlier this week suggested an alternative plan that would have postponed the board decision for up to 180 days and would have built the schools elsewhere on the Ambassador property, leaving the hotel intact to be used for offices, housing or other district needs.

But Huizar called Tokofsky’s plan a “delay tactic. Time is our enemy.”

As opposing groups debated whether to sue the board, Romer said he believed the district could win any legal challenge to the plan.

A letter hand-delivered Tuesday to the district’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety laid the groundwork for possible litigation.

The district’s final environmental impact report “presents a skewed analysis of the potential impacts of the project that is heavily biased against preservation and reuse,” wrote Jeffrey D. Dintzer, a partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which is representing the conservancy.

Bernstein emphasized that he does not believe that legal action would delay the completion of a school on the hotel site, in part because it will be about two years before construction begins.

The district has said it hopes to open the elementary school portion of the site in 2008, and the rest a year later.


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