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Group Urges L.A. Unified to Preserve Historic Hotel

September 11, 2004|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a plan Friday to help the Los Angeles school district pay for the rehabilitation of the Ambassador Hotel with federal tax credits while turning up the political pressure on the district to save the hotel.

The school district is expected to announce its plan next week for turning the Ambassador into a 4,200-student school and community park. That long-awaited decision comes after years of debate and behind-the-scenes negotiations over the fate of the historic hotel where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot, movie stars mingled and presidents slept.

The Ambassador sits on a vast swath of land, almost 23 acres, in an area of town where open space is scarce and the population is dense. Los Angeles Unified School District officials estimate that 3,800 students are bused from the neighborhood each day because the schools nearby are too crowded.

But the Ambassador also is one of the last intact vestiges of old L.A., an empress dowager of a hotel that once drew celebrities, politicians and foreign leaders through its doors. It closed in 1989.

The hotel, said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, "is one of Los Angeles' defining historical sites."

For that reason, as well as for its architectural significance, the Myron Hunt-designed hotel qualifies for federal tax credits, she said.

Friday's announcement, just a few days before Supt. Roy Romer will announce his choice among five proposals for the reuse of the site, was meant in part to pressure the Los Angeles Board of Education, which will vote on the proposals soon after.

Dishman said she believed Romer's choice will be to destroy "all but a handful of pieces of the original hotel." The tax credits, said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the conservancy, represented a challenge to the district to rehabilitate the site.

Dishman said the district could raise as much as $39.4 million through the sale of federal tax credits.

In its draft environmental impact report, the school district estimated that razing the hotel and its outbuildings and replacing them with all new structures would cost about $286 million. Another option, which would retain the hotel's original tower and several key sites, including the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and a coffee shop designed by architect Paul Williams, has a price tag of about $381 million. Other proposals fall in between.

But the conservancy disputes the district's cost estimates. "The school district has made some outlandish claims," Bernstein said Friday. The district's cost estimates, he said, "show us that the school district is in fact flunking math."

The conservancy estimates the cost of a new structure at closer to $293 million, and the reuse option at $326.5 million. The difference between those two options, they said, could be paid for by two types of federal tax credits.

If the proposed reuse of the site meets certain Interior Department standards, the district could procure about $39.4 million in federal funds, said Stanley Lowe, vice president of community revitalization for the National Trust.

But according to several sources, the current proposal does not appear to meet those standards. Instead, said Lowe and others, the district's reuse proposal would net about $33.4 million in tax credits.

Both proposals would require the district to partner with a private organization in order to receive the tax credits.

Edwin van Ginkel, senior development manager for the district, said the district already had explored the use of tax credits.

"But we found that there are several complicating factors," Van Ginkel said.

Among those, he said, are concerns about the nature of the required private-public partnership, and that the Interior Department standards would require a smaller school than the one planned for the site.

In addition, he said, the district has received some revenue from television and movie filming on the site, and that might disqualify the district from receiving some of the credits.

Besides, he said, "Even if it's $39 million, that doesn't make up the budget shortfall that we project. And there's an opinion out there that even if you preserve the hotel, by trying to cram the classrooms into hotel towers, you end up with an inferior school."

The district has plans to build nine schools in the crowded area around Wilshire Boulevard and Normandie Avenue.

The conservancy is one of several organizations that has been negotiating privately in the last few months, meeting and wrangling with district officials over cost estimates and how long a building project would take.

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