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The equivocal city

A debate over the fate of the Ambassador Hotel illuminates a flimsy planning process and a city unsure of how its past fits into its future.

January 09, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

The Ambassador's broad-shouldered main building, engineers and architects say, is eminently salvageable. Still, the strict safety and seismic codes that govern school construction these days, not to mention the structural challenges of turning 80-year-old hotel rooms into high-tech classrooms, make that an expensive proposition.

As a result, the debate over the Ambassador's fate came down to a relatively basic question: Is it worth spending roughly $375 million to $400 million -- as opposed to $318 million for the plan approved by the school board -- to save the building and turn it into a school serving 4,200 students?

Schools Supt. Roy Romer, not surprisingly, said no. As the leader of a $14-billion building campaign that qualifies as the second biggest public-works project in the country after Boston's Big Dig -- "And ours doesn't leak," Romer quipped in a recent conversation -- he is highly wary of risk or contingency.

Indeed, Romer has been unwilling even to consider a number of complicated possible solutions to the Ambassador dilemma: trying to raise the extra money for preservation through private sources, for example. It is painfully clear that the debacle at the Belmont Learning Center, where the district struggled for years to build an expensive, ill-conceived high school on what turned out to be a contaminated site, still weighs heavily on his mind. In the same conversation, Romer mentioned Belmont, unprompted, seven or eight times. The lesson he's taken away from it is that when it comes to construction projects it pays to be deeply suspicious of unorthodox solutions.

The superintendent has hired a number of former Navy officers to help run the district's building effort, and he freely admits that they have made a point of setting a tone of martial, unwavering strength. When it comes to putting up schools on empty sites in essentially suburban locations -- and coming on the heels of two decades in which the school district ignored demographic trends and built almost nothing at all -- there is something to be said for that kind of single-mindedness and drive. But at the Ambassador, where the district purchased a site overflowing with architectural and historical significance, Romer's approach practically guaranteed the hotel's doom. Making it work as a successful school would have required limber thinking and a prolonged, good-faith effort to bridge the gap between architectural and educational priorities.

For its part, the Conservancy emerges from this debate looking better -- but not by much. After a string of preservation victories in the 1980s and '90s, including cases where buildings such as the 1929 Bullocks Wilshire department store were restored for educational use, the group brought a certain earned swagger to the early Ambassador talks. But its leaders were unprepared for the stubbornly unified front presented by Romer and his aides. And they didn't have a strategy in place to combat the argument that the strongest defenders of the hotel building were wealthy dilettantes who don't live in the immediate area.

The Conservancy's decision to file suit against the district in the wake of an unfavorable school board vote has begun to look like a mistake even to its supporters. This is especially true when you consider that the plan now being pushed by the group -- the plan that is, indeed, at the center of its lawsuit -- calls for preserving the hotel and building the three new schools clustered around it. This is an unworkable solution, primarily because it's unclear what use the hotel would have in this scenario.

Cowed by Romer's over-my-dead-body conclusion that the hotel would never work as a school, the Conservancy now suggests restoring Hunt's building for district offices. But the district itself is cold to that idea. And given the soft demand for office space in the mid-Wilshire area, it seems highly unlikely that any commercial tenants would be clamoring to rent part of a structure that sits in the middle of a school site that would be filled by several thousand students.

To a certain extent, to be fair to the Conservancy, its decision to sue reflects the limitations of the planning and preservation process in Los Angeles, which were particularly severe in this case. The group was able to make its case to the members of the school board, but they were, not surprisingly, more open to school officials' arguments than those of preservationists. Without a broader, less partisan body to appeal to, the Conservancy felt it had nowhere to turn but the courts.

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