June 1, 2003 - From the June, 2003 issue

LAUSD Set To Determine Fate Of Ambassador Hotel

LAUSD recently released its EIR on the Ambassador Hotel site, which highlights the five alternatives being considered by the District for construction of education facilities on the historic grounds. TPR is pleased to present this op-ed by Ken Bernstein, Director of Preservation Issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, in which he argues the case that preserving the historic main building will serve both L.A.'s need to expand school capacity and to recognize a significant part of L.A.'s history.


Ken Bernstein

The Los Angeles Unified Scool District (LAUSD) has released its Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the potential demolition of Wilshire Boulevard's Ambassador Hotel during June, setting the stage for Superintendent Roy Romer and the Board of Education to decide in the coming months the fate of one of Los Angeles' most historic sites.

Since the School District now owns the entire 23.7-acre Ambassador property and the dense neighborhood around the hotel has an undeniably acute need for new public schools, it is clear that the Ambassador site will be used for a K-12 educational complex. The question remains: will LAUSD level the historic hotel to build an all-new school campus, or will it utilize the site's remarkable historic features as a centerpiece of its school complex?

What's At Stake

Much to the dismay of the LAUSD bureaucracy, the Ambassador Hotel is not just any other proposed school site: its unique legacy and significance places it at the very heart of Los Angeles' self-identity.

The Ambassador, opened in 1921, was the catalyst for development of the entire Wilshire Boulevard corridor, which had been a dirt road before the Ambassador opened, surrounded by bean and barley fields. It was one of the most notable works of famed architect Myron Hunt (designer of the Rose Bowl, Huntington Library, much of Occidental College and many other local landmarks), with significant later contributions by the pioneering African-American architect Paul R. Williams. The Ambassador was home of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Los Angeles' premier night spot for decades; and host to six Oscar ceremonies and to every U.S. President from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon (who wrote his 1952 "Checkers" speech at the hotel).

The Ambassador debate is also much more than a local issue: the nation's press is watching closely to see if Los Angeles' leaders will step forward to preserve the Ambassador, site of the tragic 1968 Robert F. Kennedy assassination. The two most comparable sites nationally are the Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (site of the Martin Luther King assassination). Neither building was as architecturally or culturally significant as the Ambassador Hotel aside from the single, tragic event that occurred there, yet both have now been preserved as museums. The Ambassador, as a vital educational campus, will not be a museum, but, instead, can be a living testament to the RFK legacy.

The Alternatives

LAUSD is analyzing five separate alternatives for the Ambassador property: 1) "Maximum reuse" (preservation of the main hotel building); 2) Preserving only the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and somehow reconstructing the Embassy Ballroom and RFK assassination site; 3) Preserving only the Cocoanut Grove and the north tower of the hotel, demolishing two-thirds of the main hotel building and the remainder of the complex; 4) Full demolition and all new construction; 5) Preserving the main hotel building while selling off the six-acre Wilshire Boulevard frontage for commercial development.

The Los Angeles Conservancy supports Alternative #1 and Alternative #5, which both save the significant historic features of the hotel. Though some within LAUSD's bureaucracy are touting the "compromise" alternatives (#2 and #3) as a way of "honoring the past" while building for the future, these alternatives are really no compromise at all. Only mere fragments of a once-grand hotel would remain, actually dishonoring the unique history of the site. To witness the perils of piecemeal preservation, one need only look directly across the street from the Ambassador, where the once-famed Brown Derby restaurant hat now sits perched ridiculously and meaninglessly atop a two-story mini-mall.

In fact, Alternative #1, the so-called "maximum reuse" alternative, is a misnomer, as it already represents a significant "compromise." The hotel's beautiful historic bungalows, the swimming pool and cabanas, and several ancillary buildings would all be lost, due to the imperative to fit athletic fields on the property, and the upper floors of the hotel would be gutted for classroom space.

The Conservancy supports Alternative #5, the "split-site" option, so long as any new construction is appropriately scaled and leaves substantial views of the hotel from Wilshire Boulevard. Under this alternative, LAUSD would need to find another site at which to locate its proposed elementary schools.

Not Just a School -- A Better School

Why is it so important to save the Ambassador Hotel? Los Angeles' students can have the unique opportunity to get their education in one of Los Angeles' architectural and historic treasures.

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A state-of-the-art school: LAUSD's project team, led by the experienced private-sector development firm Urban Partners, has confirmed that the Ambassador converts beautifully to a school facility. LAUSD's standard high school and middle school program fits well into the hotel, with a sensitively designed five-story addition for science, laboratories and other special classrooms. The upper floors of the hotel are converted into standard LAUSD classroom spaces, creating a wide corridor for student passage. The campus would also have a new gymnasium, new athletic fields, and an entirely new elementary school on the south portion of the site along Eighth Street. LAUSD's team has also confirmed that, despite the hotel's visible peeling plaster and cosmetic cracks, the Ambassador will be brought up to all State and local code requirements, including the heightened seismic requirements for schools (Field Act).

Preserving and transforming the Ambassador's unique public spaces: The defining public spaces of the Ambassador become integral parts of the new school. The famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub becomes the school's large auditorium and performance space. The hotel retail concourse's coffee shop, designed by Paul R. Williams, serves as the faculty dining room. The lovely hotel lobby can serve as the high school's entrance, student "commons", and a social gathering place for students (although, incredibly, LAUSD's designers are proposing to chop this grandiose and intact space into tiny classrooms and storage rooms). And the grand Embassy Ballroom is transformed into a magnificent school library.

An inspiration for students: Preserving the Ambassador will allow its rich history to infuse the curriculum. Students will read The Great Gatsby in a space where F. Scott Fitzgerald regularly stayed. Music and theater students will actually perform in the Cocoanut Grove, where virtually every famous performer of the 20th century -- including Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Lena Horne -- once graced the stage. They can learn about architecture and preservation, using the structure itself as their textbook. And they will study history and politics in a building that significantly shaped our local and national political history.

Joint-use opportunities for the community: The Ambassador project will be much more than a school: it will be a true community center. The library in the historic Embassy Ballroom could be open to the community, and the Cocoanut Grove auditorium would be available for community gatherings and meetings. The campus will have athletic facilities serving this dense residential community, and the Ambassador's conversion will make this once-exclusive hotel and its grounds open to all, as permanent public recreation and open space.

Worth the premium: Based on cost estimates by the Conservancy's talented team of pro-bono consultants, the "reuse" alternative for the Ambassador will cost $46 million more than all-new construction in absolute terms. The LAUSD bureaucracy is maintaining that the cost difference is actually $95 million, a ludicrous number that the bureaucracy has "cooked" by piling on high "contingency" figures and by unfairly assuming that LAUSD's new construction will utilize "bare-bones" materials compared with the higher-quality materials and finishes of the historic rehab project. But a single number does not begin to tell the entire cost story.

The main factor behind the total cost differential is that the Ambassador Hotel is simply larger than the proposed new school building: it has 160,000 square feet of additional space, more than 25% more. It therefore turns out that the cost of constructing the "maximum reuse" alternative is actually $23 per sq. ft. less than new construction. The reuse alternative will give the School District more space, often in enhanced facilities (e.g., a library in a grand ballroom that is twice the size of typical high school libraries and can be used by the underserved surrounding community). In other areas, the hotel offers extra space that the District can utilize in lieu of existing leases it is paying for elsewhere in the area.

This "absolute" cost differential is also a small percentage of what will be an unusually expensive school, even if it is exclusively new construction. The School District paid over $100 million, including interest on the District's initial deposit, just to acquire the Ambassador property, and the overall cost of the three-school Ambassador project will very likely exceed $300 million. To spend over $300 million on a single campus site seems astounding enough -- to spend this much while demolishing one of Los Angeles' most significant landmarks in the process verges on the outrageous.

To help fill some of the remaining "absolute" cost gap, the Conservancy, along with the strong leadership of State Senator Gil Cedillo, is working hard to secure Proposition 40 funding, State Park Bond monies that were earmarked for the preservation of historic resources. The Conservancy believes that there are tremendous opportunities for additional philanthropic support for the Ambassador project that will be available once the District commits to reuse, opportunities that simply would not be available for new construction.

L.A.'s kids deserve nothing less

The Ambassador project will offer students, teachers and residents remarkable beauty, amenities, and an unmistakable sense of place that simply cannot be provided by new construction. Preservation of the Ambassador will allow students to feel that their urban school is beautiful and inspirational -- a site where history isn't only a musty textbook, but is tangible, all around them. That's the opportunity before the District -- and for all Angelenos.

TPR readers who wish to offer comments to LAUSD on the potential demolition of the Ambassador may review the EIR for "Central Los Angeles Area New Learning Center No. 1" on the web at www.laschools.org. The comment period on the Ambassador project will extend until August 1st. There will also be a public hearing on the EIR on Saturday, July 12, 10:00 a.m. at Virgil Middle School, 152 N. Vermont Ave.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.