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First, Schwabs! Now, a Parking Lot on the Cocoanut Grove?

April 05, 1998|Richard Weinstein | Richard Weinstein is a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA

The 23-acre site of the historic Ambassador Hotel is the largest undeveloped piece of real estate in central Los Angeles. Its development will be crucial to the future of an important and rapidly changing area along Wilshire Boulevard.

In its glory days, the Ambassador was the pride of Los Angeles, its setting a prime location on the best stretch of street in Southern California, close to Bullock's Wilshire and its tea room, the place to shop and be elegant, with I. Magnin's nearby and several of the finest Art Deco buildings and religious structures in the city.

Wilshire Boulevard promised to be a different kind of downtown, one that was linear rather than concentrated at the center, and thus more suited to the extended pattern of settlement that characterizes Los Angeles. This part of Wilshire was the east-west armature of a dense area of housing, with Hancock Park the upscale equivalent of the chic boulevard.

But now, the vacant and outdated hulk of the Ambassador, weakened by earthquakes, suffers its great public rooms to gather more dust and lay up mixed memories of Oscar parties at the Cocoanut Grove, of gardens, glamour, politics and the tragic shock of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in the hotel basement.

In a shower of glitz, New York developer Donald Trump landed on the site some years ago and announced he was going to build the world's tallest building. Angelenos greeted this carpetbagging news with a smile. But the school board, which had plans for a high school on the same spot, was less amused. It put an obstacle in his path as formidable as Jackie Goldberg. After a few skirmishes, this led to exhausting litigation and complication that still have not been fully resolved. To be fair, the overlapping jurisdictions of our imperial bureaucracies and the political thrombosis they produce, are enough to stop anyone from doing anything. However, the market for real estate proved even more obstreperous and Trump put the project in cold storage, moving on to more lucrative pickings.

But Los Angeles is an adolescent vulnerable to rapid change because of the structure of its economy, which is related to the city's spatial character. This seems to encourage the proliferation of smaller and more flexible business units. Los Angeles doesn't look back much, the city is about transformation. Consequently, the Ambassador is an orphan of time. Bullock's Wilshire is gone, Magnin's closed, the Wilshire Temple is moving west, commercial space is begging, shops are empty.

However, a new kind of vitality has replaced the old in the residential areas that back up on Wilshire. A stable and increasingly affluent Korean community has emerged to the north. Sixth Street is full of restaurants and night spots that jump to the wee hours.

To the south, a middle- and lower-middle-class Latino neighborhood is vibrant, yet so poorly served by retail business that residents literally line up to get into shops. There are also a growing number of low-income families, sharing apartments and houses. It is estimated that up to 70,000 new residents will move into this neighborhood in the next decade. Change, including changes of this sort, are now part of any calculation about the future of the Ambassador site.

But the reality on the ground is not lost on Trump, who recently advanced a new proposal for the Ambassador. Instead of going mano-a-mano with the World Trade Center in New York, Trump now proposes to build a "power center," with "big box" retail--Target, for example, or Home Depot; a multiplex cinema; eye-numbing parking lots, and a supermarket and other neighborhood-oriented retail stores.

Though the Ambassador is a storied locale where Clark Gable and friends used to loll by the pool or dazzle at the Grove, there would be no trace of the hotel. The whole scheme looks like a project designed from an Orange County golf course over a cell phone. Its high point is the multiplex near Wilshire, in mock Spanish Colonial style--itself a mixed-up and partly invented knock-off of Mexican models originally imported from Spain.

Is this the best Trump can offer? This from the man who recently clothed an older New York building in the equivalent of a gold lame dress, designed by Philip Johnson? Doesn't Trump care about his image in a town that knows how to put its images in the bank? And if he thinks he had trouble with the school board, wait until the preservation community lets loose their dogs of war.

Trump's is a "tread water" proposal, failing to take on the site and anticipate the emerging importance of the surrounding Korean and Latino middle classes. For, while big-box retail may offer lower income residents a more affordable way to shop, it was developed for the suburban market, where space was not at a premium. The multiplex, however, is an appropriate response to the need for entertainment: There are no movie theaters for miles, and the supermarket and neighborhood retail would be exceedingly welcome to the surrounding residents.

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