As President of the Los Angeles Conservancy, I wanted to share with you my thoughts on the end of the Conservancy's long effort to preserve Wilshire Boulevard's Ambassador Hotel - one of Los Angeles' defining historic sites.
I am very sad to report that we have fought the good fight, but have lost. Demolition of the Ambassador Hotel will likely begin within the coming months. But this effort has allowed us to create a breakthrough agreement with LAUSD that will help preserve dozens of other historic schools throughout Los Angeles.
In July, we were tremendously disappointed when a Superior Court judge denied a lawsuit by the Conservancy and seven other plaintiffs to block demolition of the Ambassador. Following this setback, our organizations decided not to file a final, long-shot legal appeal. We came to this decision after considerable deliberation and with great sadness because we remain convinced that the Ambassador site represents a tragic missed opportunity for LAUSD, L.A.'s kids, and all Angelenos. LAUSD could have feasibly created a school campus that treated the rich history of the Ambassador as an asset, not as an obstacle. Yet, after years of tremendous effort on this issue, we have exhausted all of our realistic options.
Our fight to preserve the Ambassador Hotel was never just about saving bricks and mortar, or about sentimentally commemorating the Ambassador's past. It has always been about looking forward - about using history to build a better school for our kids, and a better community. The Conservancy is about preserving and revitalizing Los Angeles' heritage for our kids, the kids who will grow up to make this heritage their own. and we have tried to live by these ideals in handling the final chapters of the Ambassador saga.
With the handwriting truly on the wall, we have therefore tried to make the best of a disheartening situation. W e have obtained a binding commitment from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to create a permanent non-profit endowment to preserve and revitalize its most historic school campuses for Los Angeles' next generations.
From the day LAUSD acquired the Ambassador, the Conservancy and its partners have stated clearly that we supported a school at the site. There is a desperate need for school facilities in this neighborhood, with thousands of kids being bused for hours each day to distant campuses. Beginning in 2001, the Conservancy and a talented pro bono team of top professional preservation architects and engineers, led by Conservancy Board Members Barry Milofsky and Nabih Youssef, created a workable plan that would have allowed L.A.'s kids to go to school in an inspiring historic setting. We will always be grateful for the incredible advocacy of thousands of Conservancy members, along with 80 leading community organizations, who joined our broad-based coalition to fight for this vision of adaptively reusing the Ambassador as a school. But LAUSD steadfastly ignored these voices: last October, on a 4-3 vote, the Board of Education turned down the adaptive reuse plan and voted to demolish almost all of the Ambassador Hotel.
After careful consideration in November, the Conservancy filed a lawsuit, joined by seven other plaintiffs - the Latino Urban Forum; Mexican American Political Association, Los Angeles Chapter; California Preservation Foundation; Art Deco Society of Los Angeles; Hollywood Heritage; Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) Alliance; and Korean Culture Center. Our goal was to use this litigation as an opportunity to craft a new and creative compromise alternative for the Ambassador site. And we did just that. Superintendent Roy Romer has had before him a plan that would meet everyone's needs on the Ambassador site - a plan designed by Stan Eckstut, a nationally renowned architect of urban schools, that would have built all-new school facilities for 4,240 students on 18 acres of the site.
Under this plan, LAUSD would have sold off the main building of the Ambassador to Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, one of our city's most successful developers of affordable housing, which wanted to create 165 housing units on floors 2-5 of the hotel. The building's public spaces would have become a community center, with after-school programs, ESL classes, and literacy and job training programs. LAUSD would not have had responsibility to pay a single dime for historic preservation. This plan would have constructed the same 4,240 student seats as proposed by LAUSD, but in smaller, more child-friendly "Small Learning Communities" of no more than 400 seats each. It would have met LAUSD's open space requirements, and saved LAUSD over $20 million in construction costs.
But instead of embracing this compromise, Superintendent Romer refused to change his position, even after top California elected officials urged the Superintendent to consider the plan. We remain convinced that LAUSD's plan is the wrong plan for L.A.'s kids, and the wrong plan for our city. But, unfortunately, a Superior Court judge has ruled that LAUSD did comply with state environmental laws in approving its plan. While we continue to believe that LAUSD's approval fell short of the requirements in state law, we also recognize that the courts tend to defer to government agencies, particularly when those agencies have prepared a full and lengthy Environmental Impact Report on a project.
Up to this point, our lawsuit has not delayed the school by a single day: LAUSD was never going to begin construction during this time period. But in looking forward toward a possible last-ditch appeal, our Board of Directors recognized that this would no longer be true. We did not want to delay the construction of school facilities for kids who are being bused for long distances, particularly when our attorneys were telling us that our chances of ultimately prevailing in court were extremely slim. And, even if we did prevail in court, the judge would have merely sent the issue back to the same LAUSD leadership, who would almost certainly just re-adopt their demolition plan for the Ambassador.
Given the significance of the Ambassador Hotel to our city's history, the Conservancy's Board and staff did not want to end the Ambassador fight until we became convinced that we had literally done everything possible to save this historic site. Regrettably, we came to the conclusion in recent weeks that we had, indeed, reached that point.
Faced with these sobering realities, the Conservancy's leadership sought to create something positive, productive, and lasting out of this difficult situation, and initiated settlement discussions. Out of these discussions, LAUSD has agreed to the establishment of a new "Historic Schools Investment Fund," which will operate as a permanent endowment and will provide grants to historic LAUSD schools for repair, restoration, and conservation of important historic features.
The $5 million fund includes $4.9 million from LAUSD and a commitment to raise an additional $100,000 by the Conservancy and other community/preservation groups. The Fund will operate as a new non-profit organization administered by a six-member Board, including representatives from LAUSD, the Conservancy, and the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission. A 2002 historic resources survey of LAUSD campuses, also to be formally recognized by the Board of Education as part of this settlement, identified 50 LAUSD schools as eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; these schools will be able to apply for grants.
Historic schools within LAUSD have serious maintenance and conservation needs - from conserving historically significant murals and repairing historic light fixtures to ensuring the historic integrity of key campus buildings. LAUSD's construction bond funds have focused specifically on new construction and infrastructure needs, but the Historic Schools Investment Fund will be able to pay for upgrading of historic resources that will improve students' learning environment.
Of course, this fund does not begin to compensate Los Angeles fully for LAUSD's tragic destruction of the Ambassador Hotel. But after coming to the painful realization that we could not save the Ambassador, we have at least created a mechanism that will fund meaningful preservation at numerous historic school sites. In the end, we will be able to preserve the historic and architectural legacies of Los Angeles' schools, and can weave these rich histories into the lives of LAUSD students.
We'd like to thank the many elected officials, including State Treasurer Phil Angelides and State Senator Gilbert Cedillo, who supported the alternative Small Learning Communities Plan. We again want to thank School Board Members David Tokofsky and Jon Lauritzen, who courageously voted last fall for adaptive reuse of the Ambassador Hotel. We also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, which has generously donated thousands of pro bono hours to the legal struggle to preserve the Ambassador.
But now, taking solace in the knowledge that we have done all that could be done to preserve the Ambassador, we have decided that this is the right time, and the right way, to move on. Let us draw on the lessons learned from this struggle as we re-double our efforts to preserve and revitalize Los Angeles' heritage for our next generation.
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Photo Credit: Security Pacific Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
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