October 28, 2004 - From the October, 2004 issue

Conservancy's Bernstein Finds Fault With LAUSD's ‘Compromise' Plan for Ambassador Hotel Site

The four-year controversy over building a school at the site of the Ambassador Hotel may have finally reached a head with the LAUSD Board's recent vote on a compromise plan. But does this plan strike the best balance between preservation of the historic buildings and the needs of a new school? Ken Bernstein, Director of Preservation at the Los Angeles Conservancy, gives TPR his reaction to the plan.


Ken Bernstein

On October 12, the LAUSD Board of Education adopted a compromise plan that will hopefully bring together those who wanted to tear down the Ambassador buildings and those, like the Conservancy, who wanted to preserve as much as possible. Ken, could you begin our interview by sharing your take on the School Board's action?

The School Board, on a 4 to 3 vote, did endorse the purported "compromise" plan of Superintendent Roy Romer and Board President Jose Huizar. This plan is no compromise at all, as it would essentially demolish all of the Ambassador Hotel except for the Cocoanut Grove building. The district calls this the "Heritage K-12 plan," which many have viewed as a truly Orwellian misnomer, since it would actually preserve almost none of the Ambassador's heritage. The six-story main Ambassador Hotel building would be completely demolished.

LAUSD has claimed that it would preserve the heritage of the grand Embassy Ballroom of the hotel, but in fact only the ceiling of this ballroom would be salvaged and then reapplied to a new room in the new school building. Even worse, following demolition the school district would erect a large, six-story pseudo-replica of the hotel's former façade as the new front wall of the new school – bringing a little piece of Las Vegas or Disneyland to the historic Ambassador site.

The district also left the fate of the hotel pantry – site of the Robert F Kennedy assassination – rather uncertain. It actually adopted a somewhat contradictory set of recommendations for the pantry, in that the Environmental Impact Report commits LAUSD to preserve the pantry according to historic preservation standards. At the same time, the board adopted a separate motion to create a five-member commission of presidential scholars and historians who will advise the district on the appropriate treatment of the pantry – which may or may not propose retaining it. It is important to point out that, under this plan, actual preservation of the assassination site is impossible because the entire hotel building in which the room sits would be demolished. Superintendent Romer acknowledged at the public hearing that the pantry would actually have to be, in his words, "containerized" for re-installation in a new school building – a rather ludicrous way to address a site of national tragedy.

Despite all of the press focus on the Kennedy family and its views, it's important to remember that the preservation fight to save the Ambassador Hotel was never primarily about the assassination. The Ambassador would be one of Los Angeles' defining historic sites even if that tragedy had never occurred. Our coalition's focus was not on "memorializing" either the assassination or the positive memories of the Ambassador: it was always forward-looking – about creating not just another school, but a better school for L.A.'s kids.

Obviously the superintendent and the board majority are not unmindful of the issues that were raised by the Conservancy and the A-Plus Coalition of some 70 organizations. Why do you think that they ultimately chose a different compromise led by Board President Huizar?

I think that they chose a plan that could be "sold" as appearing to address historic preservation concerns, even if it is, in actuality, a dressed-up demolition plan.

The Board had legitimate issues and competing constituencies to address. A coalition of local community groups was vocally insisting on immediate construction of a state-of-the-art school for this community. There is tremendous frustration that LAUSD began trying to acquire this site 15 years ago, but have constructed nothing. And they were absolutely right: there is an undeniable, crying need for a new school in this neighborhood, and it's a travesty that kids are boarding buses at 6:00 a.m. from this community.

The Conservancy and the A+ Coalition supporting preservation have repeatedly articulated strong support for a state-of-the-art new school on the Ambassador site, and flexibly supported demolition of all but the main hotel building to make this possible.

We also saw a desire of many School Board members to simply get on with it and construct the school in the most direct, straightforward way possible. Unfortunately, to many of the School Board members, that meant choosing essentially all-new construction instead of historic rehabilitation – which we acknowledge might have required greater creativity and collaboration than the political dynamics of the moment would allow.

Please talk about the lessons learned by the Conservancy and its almost 10,000 members from this confrontation over seats and dollars versus historic preservation.

I don't know that we've yet been able to step back to reflect on the lessons learned. But I do know that the issue should never have been framed as one of seats and dollars vs. preservation, or kids vs. history. All along, our message has been that it is not an either/or choice. It is a matter of blending those two to achieve public policy objectives and to create a better school - an "A+ school" – which is the idea behind the very name of the A+ Coalition.

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It's about going beyond creating Wal-Mart schools to create model schools that are respectful of history, that weave the rich history of Los Angeles into the essence of the educational experience, and that are true centers of community. We believe that opportunity was very much within reach at the Ambassador Hotel site, and that, if the will had truly existed at LAUSD, it need not have detracted from other construction priorities.

Many of those involved in the Ambassador project and similar projects have noted that the parties seem to function in "silos." The school board is properly interested in costs and seats, while housing developers, open-space advocates, health-care access organizations, and preservation people all have their own interests and don't come together around an agenda for a densely-populated, built-out city and region. Is there anything about the Ambassador decision that counters that observation? Is everybody functioning rationally in their silos?

I think so, and, to some degree, that is a big part of what led to this decision. We have all wanted to break out of those silos. The Conservancy and others – including some members of the coalition advocating demolition – did try to come together last year to create a common agenda for schools as centers of community in shaping LAUSD's recent bond measure. But that effort had only partial success, due largely to resistance from LAUSD itself.

Throughout the Ambassador process, there were missed opportunities to break out of those silos. Even in week before the vote, Mayor Hahn issued a call for all parties - LAUSD, advocates of demolition, and preservation groups - to return to the negotiating table and find a more meaningful compromise than the one proposed by LAUSD. The Conservancy immediately expressed an interest in engaging in those discussions, but none of the other parties did. So, unfortunately, the silo mentality endures.

Ken, you were a City Council staff member on land-use issues before coming to the Conservancy. Is there a structural problem with asking seven School Board members, elected mostly because of their interest in education, to be the land-use decision-makers for a $14 billion school facilities portfolio in our built-out metropolitan area? Have we given the responsibility of making complex community development decisions that ought to meet the interests of multiple stakeholders to the wrong folks? Is their view of the opportunities too silo-like?

That is an excellent point. The seven board members, as well-meaning and intelligent as many of them are, are, of course, part-time representatives earning $24,000 a year. They are now responsible for the single largest public-works program in the United States, now that Boston's Big Dig is wrapping up. That program to this point has been largely driven by a single-issue mentality: seats, seats, seats at all costs.

As your question points out, we do need seats but we also need to integrate the issues of schools as the centers of community, affordable housing, and neighborhood revitalization, as well as historic preservation. There has been no attempt to integrate those potentially complementary public policy goals into a single agenda. The school district's view is that these other goals are competing and serve as impediments, not opportunities.

In closing, what are the Conservancy's present plans for the Ambassador given the School Board's vote to accept an effectively razed Hotel?

We continue to hear from the 68 diverse business, labor, community, and entertainment industry groups in the A+ Coalition, who still believe that there is an opportunity to create a better plan for the Ambassador site than the half-baked proposal that the LAUSD has adopted. The Conservancy Board has not yet met to evaluate whether it will pursue litigation challenging the adoption of this plan.

We would say this very clearly: The Conservancy will not file a lawsuit solely for the purpose of delay. We recognize how badly this school is needed in the community and how important it is to get kids off of buses as quickly as possible. But this school would not break ground for more than two years, and that provides ample time for the merits of this issue to be evaluated by a judge without delaying the school. Delay would only result if LAUSD actually broke the law.

We believe there are legitimate legal issues at stake here that may require a reevaluation of the decision. If that happens, we would hope that better compromise alternatives will get more serious consideration, such as the one put forward by David Tokofsky that would build the necessary 4,000-plus seats as all-new construction on the 18 acres surrounding the main hotel building, while converting the main building to LAUSD offices, teacher training, and even workforce housing for teachers. There may still be an opportunity to bring all of the parties together more meaningfully and build a truly great school.

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