District agrees to halt tear-up of club

Times Staff Writer

Facing an unfavorable legal decision, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed reluctantly Thursday to delay demolition of the fabled Cocoanut Grove nightclub to make way for a 4,240-student complex on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel.

The Los Angeles Conservancy sought to halt the wrecking ball until a judge had time to rule on whether the district was breaking the law by tearing the club down.

The district argued that the demolition should proceed, because a delay could prove costly and make it impossible to open the campus by 2010, as projected.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs disagreed.


“There’s no evidence that I can see here that it would be completed on the current schedule anyway,” Janavs said.

In a second, related matter, the conservancy dropped its call for an injunction to bar the district from destroying items collected from the hotel’s pantry, the site of the 1968 assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

The district said the matter was moot, as it has no plans to destroy the items, including an ice machine and electrical fixtures.

A hearing is set for February on the conservancy’s allegations.

Kevin Reed, the district’s general counsel, said he was “not happy” about having to wait for a decision on a lawsuit that he said was doomed to fail. “We have two different structural engineering reports that tell us that we cannot make the Cocoanut Grove a part of this school as we originally planned,” he said. “There’s no way we can say to parents, ‘Don’t worry, we think it’s OK,’ if our structural engineers say that we can’t.”

The school board on Tuesday approved the contract with Hensel Phelps to build the middle school, high school, auditorium and other structures on the 24-acre site, knowing that construction could be delayed at Thursday’s court hearing.

Reed said he did not know if the contractor could penalize the district for the resulting delays. The campus is budgeted at $566 million.

In a mandated environmental report, the district acknowledged that the 1921 hotel -- where presidents and politicians rubbed elbows with Hollywood celebrities -- was a historical building, requiring mitigation measures if it were torn down.

The school board decided it could mitigate through off-site preservation of the pantry and by retaining the Cocoanut Grove.

But district officials in September received approval from the school board to tear down three-quarters of the nightclub’s structure, because it couldn’t withstand an earthquake and reinforcement was unfeasible.

The district also quietly destroyed the pantry but saved fixtures, sections of the structure, and the ice machine, and 3-D imagery was taken of the room.

Those moves led to the current lawsuit, in which the conservancy alleges that the district hasn’t proven that its only option is to tear down and replicate the club and that it improperly handled the pantry. The district said it discovered that the pantry would crumble if it were moved in one piece and that its method of preservation was better.

A community group has recommended that the district destroy the remaining artifacts from the pantry.

“The remains from the pantry -- it’s junk. It has no historical significance. No significance in terms of the assassination investigation,” said Paul Schrade, a former Kennedy assistant who was shot in the head in the attack on the senator and is a member of the RFK-12 community task force, a group that has been pushing for the school.