After years of delays and legal challenges, Los Angeles school and city officials broke ground Monday on the school being built on the site of the famed Ambassador Hotel -- a campus now expected to cost more than $300 million.
The price tag, estimated at $309 million, has jumped more than 14% in recent months after the discovery of potentially explosive methane gas deposits beneath the site that will require an elaborate mitigation plan. And, unless staggering increases in construction costs that have persisted in Los Angeles abate, the final cost of the school could climb higher, district officials said.
Guests at Monday's ceremony, however, were not talking about money. It was a day of celebration and photo ops replete with golden shovels for tossing dirt. Speakers, including Councilmen Herb Wesson and Jose Huizar, repeatedly praised recently departed Supt. Roy Romer and school board members for shepherding the project forward despite preservation groups who fought to save the historic hotel.
"There could be no better memorial to my father than a living memorial that educates the children of this city," said an emotional Max Kennedy, speaking from a plateau of tightly packed dirt on the 24-acre construction site, overlooking the remains of buildings where Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.
In a private moment before the ceremony, Kennedy embraced Romer, telling him, "I am so grateful to you -- more than I could ever say."
Also attending were Paul Schrade, who was wounded in the Kennedy assassination, and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
Construction on the school, which will serve about 4,200 students in kindergarten through grade 12, is beginning only after years of bitter battles that pitted the past against the future.
Opened in 1921, the Ambassador was Los Angeles' playpen for the rich, famous and powerful. Every president from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon and other world leaders stayed there, while headliners like Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra played at the hotel's Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The hotel closed in 1989.
The Los Angeles Unified School District purchased the dilapidated property on Wilshire Boulevard in 2001, after an unsuccessful attempt by developer Donald Trump to erect the world's tallest building there. In 2004, a split school board narrowly approved plans to raze most of the complex to make way for a campus, looking to ease severe school overcrowding in one of the city's most densely packed areas.
The Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservation groups filed lawsuits to block the hotel's destruction. Last year, the conservancy enlisted state and national politicians in a failed, last-ditch effort at a compromise that would have turned the hotel's main building into affordable-housing apartments and situated the campus along the lot's perimeter. Soon after, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge dismissed the conservation groups' proposal.
Despite the district's plans to use much of the Grove for the school's auditorium and to keep the hotel's coffee shop, conservationists' emotions continue to run strong.
"They were very shortsighted" by tearing down most of the hotel, said Rafael Pizarro, head of a coalition opposed to the demolition. "I hope they won't make the same mistake in the future."
Completion of the elementary school portion of the campus is scheduled for late 2008, and the middle and high school is expected to open a year later. When it is finished, with a swimming pool, soaring ceilings and modern design, the school will be the second most expensive ever built by the district. The Belmont Learning Complex, which Romer revived after years of environmental problems and management missteps, is expected to cost about $50 million more to complete.
Romer said Monday that the fight to get the two projects done loomed large in his six-year tenure, in which he oversaw a $19.3-billion construction and modernization project that aims to open about 160 schools.
"It is so symbolic of how you get things done in this town: You have to be doggedly bullheaded," he said, chuckling. "I was hit over the head with a bat so many times, but so be it. This is a wonderful feeling."
To mitigate the methane deposits at the Ambassador site, workers will employ a $30-million plan similar to the one designed for Belmont. A heavy layer of sand will be laid beneath the campus' playing fields, while a ventilation system and a synthetic, impermeable membrane will be installed under the buildings.
District construction officials also are wary of dramatic increases in labor and material costs that have nearly doubled since 2002. Though the $309-million figure is based on the expectation that construction bids will be set at $380 per square foot, facilities executive Jim Cowell said the district is setting aside cash to pay as much as $500 per foot.