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The $578 Million School

The 20-year effort to build a school complex in Los Angeles comes with a hefty price tag.

The 24-acre site south of Wilshire Boulevard in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles signifies different things to different people.

To those with fond memories of the golden era of Hollywood glamour, the site is where starlets were discovered, some of the first Academy Award ceremonies were held, and where the Rat Pack hung out. To those steeped in the lore of politics and history, the site marks the tragic setting where a man who might have become president of the United States was felled by an assassin’s bullets.

To those responsible for educating the hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles students, the site represents the overcoming of more than 20 years of obstacles to acquire one of the few viable sites for a school in a dense urban area and bring critically needed classrooms to the neighborhood. To the families of the 4,000 or so students now attending classes there, the site represents the addition of an asset to a community that had for years seen their children bused out of the neighborhood for school.

To taxpayers near and far battered by the economy and distrustful of public officials’ ability to spend money wisely, the site is a "Taj Mahal," an overpriced and extravagant education showplace that symbolizes unchecked and wasteful government spending.

All those memories and emotions—and lots of money—are tied up in the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. Where the famous Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove nightclub once stood, where U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy was fatally shot in 1968, where developer Donald Trump once envisioned erecting the world’s tallest building, the 24 acres are now home to an education complex that was delivered with a gasp-inducing bill of $578 million.

The cost has brought unwanted national attention to the project, labeled in the media as the most expensive school in the nation. Those involved acknowledge the steep price of the campus and point to a number of factors that caused costs to escalate: the cost of the acreage, legal fights to gain control of the land, challenges from preservationists seeking to save the original buildings, environmental mitigation steps, and seeking bids for the project in an unfavorable market. But they also emphasize the overriding purpose behind the project and the result.

"The area desperately needed a school," says Harry Drake, senior project manager and principal with Gonzalez Goodale Architects. "It’s our hope that people look at it as a well-designed, well-maintained campus dedicated to education."

The campus has two main facilities: A 92,000-square-foot elementary building on the south end of the site opened in 2009. The six-story high school structure, designed to approximate the size and shape of the Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove, has more than 400,000 square feet and opened in September 2010.

Faded memories

Let’s go back more than 20 years. The once-elegant Ambassador Hotel still was open, but had fallen on hard times in the 1980s, when the Los Angeles Unified School District began expressing interest in acquiring the property. Gaining control of a tract in a densely populated area of the city would enable the district to construct a badly needed school without having to resort to property condemnations and displacing neighborhood residents.

The Ambassador closed for good in 1989, but by then other suitors were vying with the school system for the site, which developers saw as a prime candidate for commercial construction. The most prominent of those was Donald Trump, who became managing partner of a group that bought the hotel site in the late 1980s. Trump envisioned an ambitious development that at one point included a 125-story building.

The school system pursued legal avenues, including condemnation and foreclosure, to acquire the property. As years passed, the site became less attractive commercially because of a downturn in demand for commercial space and the negative effect that riots in 1992 had on the neighborhood. Trump eventually dropped out of the development group, but the school district’s legal fight for the site continued.

By the time the district prevailed in court and won control over the 24 acres, it was 2001, the school system had laid out $105 million for the property, and still no school had been built.

Preserving the past

Gaining undisputed ownership of the tract did not end the school system’s days in court. Preservationists, in the form of the group Los Angeles Conservancy, mounted a legal challenge to force the district to save the Ambassador and the adjoining Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

Built in 1921, the Ambassador reigned for decades as one of the city’s most prestigious hotels. U.S. presidents routinely stayed there, and in the 1930s and 1940s, it played host to the Academy Awards six times. The Cocoanut Grove was a regular performing venue for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr.

The Ambassador gained greater notoriety in the early hours of June 5, 1968, shortly after Bobby Kennedy won the California Democratic presidential primary and delivered his victory speech in the hotel ballroom. Walking through the hotel kitchen after the speech, Kennedy was mortally wounded by three gunshots.

The Conservancy tried to persuade the school system not to tear down the structures. It argued in a lawsuit that the district could reuse the hotel building as part of the new campus, or build the campus elsewhere on the site and convert the main building to housing or another use that would benefit the neighborhood.

The district asserted that saving the hotel building and modernizing it to meet safety and educational standards for use as a school would be too costly. For instance, Drake says, seismic standards for concrete call for it to have a strength of 3,000 pounds per square inch (psi), and much of the concrete in the Ambassador had a strength of only 800 psi, and already was deteriorating.

The preservationists conceded defeat with regard to the Ambassador. In settling that lawsuit in 2004, they chose not to challenge demolition of the hotel, but got the district to agree to preserve the Cocoanut Grove and the hotel’s coffee shop.

After a more detailed examination of those areas, school officials concluded that saving those structures wasn’t feasible, and the Conservancy went back to court in 2007 to hold the district to its agreement. The group subsequently opted to drop the legal fight, citing "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…. The damage had been done."

In return for settling both of the lawsuits, the Conservancy says, the district agreed to provide $8.9 million to a preservation fund that will help repair and restore historically meaningful school facilities in the district.

Mitigating methane

Several years ago, another costly Los Angeles school project ran into trouble when planners determined that it sat in a methane field that was potentially explosive. What was then known as the Belmont project gained notoriety as the most expensive high school in the United States, especially after part of the uncompleted campus had to be demolished so the potential methane danger could be addressed.

The Ambassador site also needed a methane mitigation system, which cost an estimated $33 million.

"Pretty much any place in Los Angeles, you’re going to have to address methane," says Drake. "The school is just down the street from the La Brea Tar Pits."

To deal with the risk of a methane buildup, a plastic membrane is used to create a barrier under the building’s slab. The system constantly measures the amount of methane present and a fan discharges unwanted gas through light poles on campus, Drake says.

Market conditions

Twenty years after it began pursuing the Ambassador site, the Los Angeles district was beginning to see the finish line, but one last dose of ill fortune sent the construction costs for the campus soaring into the stratosphere.

"This project was bid in 2007, at the peak of cost escalation," says Drake. "Labor costs were high, and China was using all the steel and concrete."

Three years ago, those conditions were just the cost of moving forward with the project, but now that economic conditions have changed dramatically, the price tag looks even more extravagant.

"Costs have become significantly lower," Drake says. "If we were bidding the project now, it would be about two-thirds the cost."

Reflecting what’s gone

Even though the Los Angeles Conservancy lost its battle to save the Ambassador and the Cocoanut Grove, the school buildings that have risen on the site do contain many elements that attempt to replicate and pay homage to what went before.

The footprint of the six-story high school building matches where the hotel stood. The school’s 12,700-square-foot library recreates the vaulted ceiling of the Ambassador’s ballroom, where Kennedy delivered his final speech. The library includes two large murals depicting key moments of Kennedy’s political career, and the space will house a collection of the senator’s archives.

One wall of the Cocoanut Grove was preserved and the space reconstructed to serve as an auditorium and lecture hall that recalls the design of the night club. The hotel’s coffee shop has been converted for use as a teachers’ lounge.

The site also includes the 19,000-square-foot Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park at the front of the site along Wilshire Boulevard with displays of quotes that reflect the senator’s push for social justice. The swimming pool, gymnasiums and a soccer field on the campus will be available for community use.

Pilot concept

While the facilities were under construction, the Los Angeles district decided that instead of opening a traditional elementary school and a traditional middle/high school, it would use the new classroom space on the Kennedy campus for what it calls "pilot schools." They are similar to charter schools in that they are freed from many regulations that govern traditional schools, but remain under control of the district.

The buildings were designed to accommodate small learning communities of 500 students each, Drake says, so the space could be adapted for the pilot school concept without much difficulty.

Investment in education

In most cases, funding for school construction cannot be commingled with operating funds, but that’s a distinction that doesn’t carry much weight when taxpayers see teacher layoffs and program cuts on one hand, and construction of expensive facilities on the other hand.

Parent Revolution, a group of Los Angeles parents working to bolster the quality of education in the school system, criticizes the district for allocating so much money to facilities when more basic issues such as improving student performance need more attention.

"The construction of the nation’s most expensive public school ever is a gleaming distraction from the more-than-dismal state of public education in the (Los Angeles district)," Parent Revolution says. "No matter how beautiful and expensive the four walls surrounding a classroom may be, nothing excuses a status quo where 50 percent of students don’t even graduate from high school and 90 percent don’t make it to college."

But Drake and others believe that by providing the community at last with a school of its own, students and their families will develop a sense of pride in the school.

"Students won’t have to ride the bus for an hour every morning, and be gone from their neighborhood from 6:30 in the morning to 4:30 at night," says Drake. "Parents now can be involved in after-school activities."

Whether the new facilities will help the district improve the education students are receiving and lower the dropout rate is unknown at this point. But the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools and the other new classrooms being built in the district’s $19 billion construction program will give students opportunities they haven’t had before.

  • Read the "Higher education, higher costs" sidebar to learn about expensive college construction projects.
  • Read the "Containing construction costs" sidebar to learn why some schools are using the Model Schools Program as the costs of building and renovating K-12 facilities climbed to record levels.
  • Read the "Sustainable Building" sidebar to learn about the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools' greenness.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Sidebar: Higher education, higher costs

High-dollar K-12 construction projects such as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles inevitably draw criticism, but on college campuses, which often require more sophisticated facilities and can count on donors to underwrite much of the expense, expensive construction projects are more common.

The University of Louisville has acquired a site from Kentucky Trailer, a manufacturer of moving vans, and plans over several years to develop a $1.1 billion research park. Plans for the area include nine research and development buildings, and five incubator and research support offices.

The project is one part of the university’s 20-year master plan, which seeks to more than double the space available on the institution’s Belknap campus to more than 5 million square feet.

But the sour economy has stymied some large-scale higher-education projects. Harvard University had ambitious plans to expand across the Charles River into the Allston neighborhood in the city of Boston. But when Harvard’s endowment fund plummeted in value, the school’s plan for a $1 billion-plus science center was mothballed. The endowment fund has rebounded to some extent, but the university has yet to issue revised plans for the project.

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