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Opposing Groups Share a Dislike for Romer's Plan for Ambassador Hotel

September 15, 2004|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

On the day that Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer officially unveiled his plan to convert the Ambassador Hotel to a school, the two groups that have been at odds over the fate of the building agreed on one thing: They don't like the plan.

Romer called his proposal, which would raze much of the building but keep a few historic elements, "a compromise for this city that both sides can be proud of."

At a press conference Tuesday on the grounds of the hotel, he said that the $318-million plan balanced the Los Angeles Unified School District's need to build a school in a densely populated area with a desire to preserve historic parts of the hotel.

But members of both the Los Angeles Conservancy, which has long urged the district to preserve most of the hotel as it builds a school on the Ambassador site, and the RFK-12 Coalition, which has supported demolishing the building in favor of a brand-new school on the property, criticized Romer's proposal.

"It's a piecemeal operation," said Paul Schrade, a member of the RFK-12 Coalition.

"We feel it is no compromise at all," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the conservancy.

The Ambassador Hotel -- which in its heyday hosted presidents, movie stars and kings -- is perhaps most famous as the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination.

The work of noted architect Myron Hunt, the hotel closed its doors in 1989 and almost ever since has been the focus of the school district's efforts to build a school on the site. After a series of legal wranglings, the district bought the property in 2001.

The RFK-12 Coalition opposes the new plan because about $15 million of the project's budget would go toward preserving parts of the building, including the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and a coffee shop designed by noted architect Paul Williams.

"The use of these educational funds sticks in our craw," said Steven Stamstad, a spokesman for the group.

Conservancy officials, on the other hand, say that the preservation of the hotel doesn't go far enough.

Bernstein said the building essentially is being demolished, despite district assurances that the view of the hotel from Wilshire Boulevard will remain substantially unchanged and that a new version of the Embassy Ballroom, which is being rebuilt and made into a library, will contain many of the room's original elements.

"They are carting away the ceiling for installation in a new room," Bernstein said. "But the Embassy Ballroom is really no more."

The Los Angeles Board of Education is scheduled to hear public comment on the Ambassador at a special meeting Sept. 23 and plans to vote on Romer's proposal Oct. 12. Even if the board adopts Romer's plan, it could be tied up in court if one of the opposing groups sues the district.

Board members offered differing views Tuesday.

David Tokofsky strongly opposes Romer's proposal, saying he believes it is a compromise of a different sort.

"It's a compromise on history, a compromise on architecture and a compromise on L.A.'s own history," Tokofsky said. "If that's considered handsome or heritage, I would call it heresy for those of us who have been born and raised in L.A."

Board member Mike Lansing said he was planning to vote against the proposal, in part because he believes that the money spent for preservation could be better used for educational needs.

"We should not be spending money on this to try to appease" those who have been pushing for preservation, he said.

But board President Jose Huizar, who represents the area around the Ambassador, said at the press conference that Romer's plan will make a great school.

"We should not lose focus," he said. "This is about providing the best possible service to children in this community."

Currently, 3,800 students are bused from the neighborhood to less crowded schools elsewhere, and the school district is scrambling to build schools in areas that need them.

Some community and civic leaders praised the district's efforts to strike a balance between preservation and expediency.

"This proposal accomplishes most everything that the community needs and history requires," said Ed Avila, president of the Alliance for a Better Community, which supports the proposal.

City Councilman Martin Ludlow, whose district includes the Ambassador, has been working behind the scenes for months, trying to broker a compromise between competing ideas for converting the historic hotel into a school.

He gave the plan a thumbs-up, saying it "has a lot of merit."

"They've done a good job of trying to traverse the multiplicity of the issues involved in building schools in one of the most densely populated areas of the country," Ludlow said. "It's giving where giving needs to happen, but it's not compromising on the necessity to build schools.... Everyone should celebrate this as a great step forward."

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