November 24, 2001 - From the November, 2001 issue

LAUSD & The Ambassador Site: How To Avoid Deja Vu All Over Again

The knowledge Jane Blumenfeld has gleaned from her positions as Mayor Bradley's Planning Advisor and Councilman Feuer's Chief of Staff combined with her new duties as Senior City Planner and School Czarina for the Planning Department has provided her an experience base larger than most of us will ever have. Because of her vast amount of knowledge, TPR approached Jane and asked her to help in clarifying the fate of one of the most important urban sites in L.A.--the Ambassador Hotel site. Her response is balanced and fair, weighs the needs of the community and the region, and urges a solution that might just return the site to functionality in our lifetime.


Ambassador Hotel

By: Jane Blumenfeld

Redeveloping 20 acres in the middle of the Wilshire Center will be a significant change in our city. And the Ambassador Hotel site is not just any 20 acres. Among LAUSD's vast real estate portfolio, it is certainly unique. It is also a site that the District has spent many years and precious funds attempting to turn into a school. It's 2001. We have new tools, a new LAUSD team, and a collective will to build schools for our kids. And I think there is a better way to arrive at the best possible solution for the Ambassador site.

Many constituencies will be impacted by the redevelopment of the Ambassador site. Kids will be able to attend neighborhood schools for the first time in decades. Older residents will react to change at a site that is a part of their history. The business district will be different, traffic patterns will be altered, and a new mix of people will comprise the pedestrians and residents of Wilshire Blvd., 8th Street and the surrounding neighborhoods.

As in all complex land use projects, evaluating the future of the Ambassador site requires a balance that considers all of these constituencies. And, as in all complex land use projects, there are strongly held views and a panoply of legitimate perspectives. A successful resolution will strike the right balance, while meeting the needs of the students-the primary responsibility of the School District landowners.

The Ambassador site is unique. It is a special and precious resource to many in our city. There are numerous options for the use of this site, ranging from exclusive school use, to schools and fields, to schools along with commercial and/or housing, to the adaptive re-use of the Hotel as a school-the combinations are endless. Hopefully, all options are on the table.

The solutions must consider the health and viability of the Wilshire Center business district and the largely Korean business district to the south. The solutions must accommodate the current and future growth of the student population in the immediate area. The solutions must consider the value of preserving one of Los Angeles' important historic monuments. And the solutions must consider the value of providing open space to a park poor neighborhood. Successfully weaving all of these considerations into a "project" and fitting such a project into a well established, dense urban neighborhood requires an inordinately creative, thoughtful, and technically specialized process.

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Right now the School District is fully engaged in a massive school building program that needs to progress at lightning speed to secure funding. There are not adequate resources available to do justice to the complicated issues involved in developing a proper solution to this unique site. The technical issues alone are demanding. Does it cost more to build new buildings than to re-use the Hotel? Does it cost $40 per foot or $60 per foot to seismically upgrade the structure? How will School Board members know the answers? There is a better way.

Why not build on the creative model that Superintendent Romer has introduced for the Belmont site? Rather than forcing the Board to out-expert the experts by making their own technical decisions about environmental issues, Romer has shifted the burden to the experts themselves and to those who believe in them. Teams have formed to bid on turning the half-finished building into different visions-multiple small charter academies, health clinic, park; a large high school, affordable housing, aquatic center; and large high school, commercial mixed use project. The teams are comprised of educators, non-profits, insurance companies, environmental firms, and underwriters, whose bids commit them to design, mitigate environmental problems, finance, insure and build the projects they believe make sense and are technically feasible. Romer has said, "put your money where your mouth is" and they have stepped forward.

He can offer the same opportunity to those who have strong views about the Ambassador. Are there economically viable schemes that can preserve some or all of the Ambassador Hotel and create a unique and special school or schools? Let the experts team up with groups who will put money behind their views. Let groups team up to meet the needs of the business districts, the community, and the other constituencies in the Wilshire Center. Then let's give the School Board an appropriate role-to make a qualitative selection from among the most creative, most thoughtful solutions by teams who have brought forward community support, technical expertise and financial viability. The Board only has to assure itself that the teams are credible.

What's in it for the School District? In addition to bringing citywide talent and creativity to its most unique school site, the District will open a school(s) sooner this way. The District has already spent 10 years trying to build a school on this site. Without the potential consensus such a bidding approach brings, the legal issues around the historic qualities of the Hotel are sure to prolong the agony for more years to come. This approach could provide not only the best thinking about the use of the site, but a vehicle for reaching enough consensus to begin building classroom seats for the kids who need them right now.

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