Los Angeles Conservancy | Preservation Issues | from the LA Conservancy Website
The former Cocoanut Grove at the site of the Ambassador Hotel. Photo by Gary Leonard.
A second lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) regarding the historic Ambassador Hotel has ended with a settlement providing additional funding for the preservation of historic schools throughout the district.
The Silver Lining: Preservation for Historic Schools
Background: Demolition of the Ambassador Hotel
On October 25, 2007, the Los Angeles Conservancy filed a lawsuit against LAUSD to hold the District accountable for its failure to comply with legal requirements regarding the former Ambassador Hotel site, which is being redeveloped as Central Los Angeles New Learning Center No. 1. The litigation stemmed from the refusal of LAUSD to complete certain mitigation measures under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that were approved in 2004 as conditions of the hotel’s demolition.
Specifically, LAUSD had promised to retain and reuse the former Cocoanut Grove, L.A.’s premier nightclub for decades and site of several Academy Awards ceremonies; the hotel’s former coffee shop, designed by renowned architect Paul R. Williams; and the pantry behind the hotel’s Embassy Ballroom, the site of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.
The retention and reuse of these historic elements as part of the new school complex were legally adopted mitigation measures under CEQA to offset the impact of destroying the hotel itself. Despite a legal challenge from the Conservancy that questioned the feasibility of the mitigation measures promised by LAUSD, the plan was approved, and the Ambassador Hotel was demolished between October 2005 and January 2006.
After the hotel’s demolition, LAUSD stated that its plan to preserve and reuse the RFK assassination site was infeasible (which the Conservancy had asserted before the project’s approval). Without any CEQA review or the opportunity for public comment, LAUSD dismantled the RFK assassination site. It now sits in twenty-nine pieces in storage containers.
Part of Paul Williams-designed coffee shop.
In May 2007, LAUSD released a “modified plan” indicating that it no longer intended to preserve the Cocoanut Grove or the Williams-designed coffee shop. The Cocoanut Grove wing would instead be almost entirely demolished and partially replicated, and the coffee shop would be “salvaged” and “reconstructed.” Neither plan met the preservation standards agreed to in 2004. Moreover, both the Cocoanut Grove and coffee shop had already been stripped of the vast majority of their interior finishes during hazardous materials abatement activities.
LAUSD cited “unforeseen structural conditions” that made reuse of the Cocoanut Grove “technically infeasible.” Despite the Conservancy’s response citing the lack of evidence and the nonconformity of the modified plan with the one approved in court in 2004, the school board approved the modified plan with little discussion on September 25, 2007.
Under CEQA, litigation was the only recourse available to hold LAUSD accountable for its actions. The Conservancy felt it necessary to seek a preliminary injunction to protect what remained of the Cocoanut Grove building while the case was pending. At a hearing on November 29, the district agreed to stipulate in a court order that it would not demolish the building before the case was heard.
In December 2007, the Conservancy and LAUSD agreed to settle the case before going to trial. The decision to settle was based on a number of factors, including the increasing realization that true preservation of the site’s remaining resources had become impossible due to what had already been lost. The Cocoanut Grove and coffee shop had been stripped of their historic fabric, and the RFK assassination site had been reduced to bits and pieces. The damage had been done.
Under the circumstances, the Conservancy felt that the best achievable result would be to end the litigation in return for a further commitment by LAUSD toward the meaningful preservation of its historic schools. When the coalition led by the Conservancy settled the first lawsuit in 2005, rather than receiving any settlement funds, the coalition asked that a permanent endowment be created to fund preservation of historic schools within LAUSD. The District provided $4.9 million in funds toward this end, and a new nonprofitHistoric Schools Investment Fund was established. Likewise, as settlement of the second lawsuit, LAUSD will provide an additional $4 million for this fund. The Conservancy did not receive any remuneration in either settlement.
The final result of this long and difficult process is twofold: the Conservancy will have no further involvement in the treatment of the Ambassador Hotel site. The Cocoanut Grove building (including the former coffee shop) is slated for demolition in late January, and the remnants of the RFK site may be destroyed. However, the district now has a permanent funding source for the authentic preservation of historic schools in dire need of repair, restoration, and conservation.
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