In a preservation battle, it's learning vs. legacies

Education officials' plan to convert a landmark into a school is raising the ire of those intent on preserving the building's past.

Maria Ramos and her five children are looking through the chain-link fence around the Ambassador Hotel, a salmon-colored architectural icon of glamorous old Los Angeles and Hollywood.

The backdrop of five Oscar ceremonies, home to the Cocoanut Grove dance floor that launched Joan Crawford, a famous hangout of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and - perhaps most famously - the place where Sen. Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968 - the hotel has been shuttered since 1989. Now its fate is in the hands of the current owner, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

"It's very famous for sure, but I just want a place in the neighborhood for my kids to go to school," says Ms. Ramos, hugging her oldest daughter, Karina.

The LAUSD has spent 15 years considering what to do with the 23-acre property, as the hotel's cracked plaster and broken windows languish in the shadows of dried-out palm trees. In the meantime, Ms. Ramos's children and 4,200 others are being bused to different Los Angeles neighborhoods because this district - one of the city's poorest - has no place to educate them.

For the Kennedy family, a difficult issue

Ramos's comment sums up a dilemma that has locked this city in one of the more emotional battles of its recent history. Besides the usual back and forth between preservationists defending city heritage and community groups crying "children first," one more event this week raised the ante: The widow and children of Robert Kennedy denounced preservation efforts targeted at the hotel itself and a back pantry where the senator was assassinated the night he won the California presidential primary.

"This is a very difficult and painful issue for members of my family," said Kennedy's son Maxwell to an activist-packed LAUSD boardroom this week, blocks from the hotel.

The board members had gathered for a final open forum before voting on the hotel's fate, choosing from five plans that ranged from demolition to preserving the 84-year-old hotel intact, but as a school.

"I don't believe the sentiment of my family should determine your vote, but I urge you not to spend money to preserve something that should be used for the poorest children of this city."

In comments that might have echoed his father's moral authority as a champion of social justice, educational parity, and civil rights, Kennedy's son concluded fervently: "Don't sacrifice the children to save your hotel."

'The children finally won out'

Kennedy's comments were a mere fraction of the sentiments expressed in the board's four-hour forum. But they may have been decisive. The board voted narrowly (4-3) to accept a compromise plan that will largely demolish the hotel, while preserving key historic elements.

Most important, say supporters, it is a plan that moves the school option forward swiftly - and opens up the property to the most students - after 15 years of inaction.

"The children finally won out," said Evelyn Aleman, spokeswoman for LAUSD Board President Jose Huizar.

Adopting the plan set out by Superintendent Roy Romer and Mr. Huizar, the board chose to make the site home to three campuses, including a K-12 school for 4,240 students, four to five smaller learning communities seating 2,440 students, and a separate K-8 school for 1,800.

The approved plan will also restore the Cocoanut Grove nightclub to its original Moorish style as an auditorium, and convert a coffee shop designed by famed architect Paul Williams into a teachers' lounge. The Embassy Ballroom, where Kennedy spoke before his assassination, will come down, but its ornate ceiling and friezes will decorate a library. And a new facade, visible from Wilshire Boulevard, a signature street that stretches from downtown to the ocean, will echo the hotel's current design.

"We feel we have taken ... the historic view into account, but also use available funds for a good school, not simply preservation," Mr. Romer said.

Outlook for the future

Officials called for further study by a committee of presidential historians to consider moving the pantry to another site. The move postponed a verdict on one of the controversy's most sensitive issues.

Spokesmen for the city's leading preservationist group, the Los Angeles Conservancy, said they will consider all options for a platform opposing the plan, or they may let it stand. They took heart that construction is not slated to begin until at least 2007, giving them sufficient time to strategize on alternatives. Those could include legal challenges asking judges to assess whether LAUSD officials adequately and fairly considered all options.

"We are obviously disappointed," says the conservancy's Ken Bernstein, who feels his organization's idea to preserve more of the structure was sabotaged by inflated construction-cost estimates. "This is not something that most cities would allow to [happen to] one of their designated landmarks."

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