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LOS ANGELES

Learning What Public Wants at Ambassador

Land use: The L.A. district hearing draws 500 with ideas for the hotel site. The only sure thing is that at least one school will be built.

January 27, 2002|ERIKA HAYASAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Name it after Robert F. Kennedy. Install an indoor public pool. Convert old hotel rooms, where celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst and Jean Harlow once slept, into classrooms.

Nearly 500 people showed up for a public hearing Saturday to offer suggestions to Los Angeles Unified School District officials about the future of the landmark Ambassador Hotel in the Mid-Wilshire district.

So far, no one is sure what exactly will happen to the 80-year-old Wilshire Boulevard property, where celebrities partied in the 1930s and 1940s, former presidents slept and presidential candidate Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

The only guarantee is that the site will be use for a school.

"I don't think anybody wants this building to be torn down," said school board President Caprice Young. "The real question is whether it is going to be possible to meet the needs of the students while preserving the hotel."

The district bought the Ambassador nearly a month ago after a 10-year legal battle with an investment group once led by Donald Trump. The 24-acre site sold for $105 million.

As part of its commitment to build 85 new schools over the next six years, the district plans to use the site for at least one campus, and maybe more. The Ambassador will relieve schools in the area, which is so overcrowded that four campuses bus out 3,850 students each day.

Community members, parents and business leaders who attended Saturday's forum offered a hodgepodge of ideas.

The Los Angeles Conservancy wants to restore the building and make it a high school. The group suggests turning the ballroom--where Kennedy, who had just won the state Democratic presidential primary, gave a victory speech moments before he was killed--into a library.

Tom Gibbons, 76, who brought a vintage Kennedy campaign button that read: "Lower the voting age to 10," recommended posting quotes from Kennedy on the walls of the school library or recreation room.

"Bobby Kennedy was very much for students," Gibbons said. "If he were alive today, he would say: Do what you can for the kids."

Other suggestions included converting the Cocoanut Grove, a former night spot in the hotel, into a school auditorium. Then, students would be able to put on high school plays in the same room where stars such as Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys, Peggy Lee and Barbra Streisand once performed.

Another idea: Restore the hotel lobby for a student gathering place, so youths would be able to debate and socialize in the same revival-style grand lobby where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to sit with wife Zelda.

Although members of the Wilshire business community want part of the property for commercial development, most people who attended Saturday's meeting brainstormed about the best educational uses. A popular idea was to create specialized academies on the site that focus on politics, law, architecture, social justice or entertainment--all subjects that may be taught through the history of the Ambassador.

For example, some community members pointed out that then-Vice President Richard Nixon wrote his famous 1952 Checkers speech at the hotel. That fact, along with other such information could be woven into a history and politics class.

Henrietta Cosentino, 60, said: "Given that it is the site of one of the most violent assassinations in our history ... it may be important to have a center for the study of violence here."

School building director Kathi Littmann said it will take at least 15 to 18 months to develop plans for how the Ambassador site will be used.

It may take as long as five years to complete the project.

She said the district will consider community input and come up with the best proposal.

"There are such diverse opinions," Littmann said. "There's not going to be an easy answer here."

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