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Old Rail Depot Is Focus of Whittier Preservation Debate

September 15, 1985|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — The Southern Pacific depot on the city's west side is nearly a century old, its timbers bleached and weathered from decades of sun and use.

In its heyday, the depot was the economic link between burgeoning Whittier--an agrarian community settled by Quakers in the 1880s--and the citrus markets of Los Angeles to the west.

Today the depot stands more as a symbol than a solid structure.

Although it is not now facing destruction, the depot has become the latest landmark caught up in the long-running debate over whether the city should save historic buildings.

Angered by the loss of a string of old buildings and homes in recent years, city preservationists are rallying around the depot. The two-story, wood-frame station has become a magnet for their efforts to press city officials for laws that will protect Whittier historical sites.

The fight over preservation in Whittier, with its many old buildings, has all the classic elements.

For cities and developers it is costly and time-consuming to save old buildings. Preservation often runs counter to efforts to revive economically depressed cities. Rising property values in older neighborhoods make it difficult for owners to resist selling their property. And government officials and preservationists often are divided on what constitutes historical value in a building and, consequently, which buildings should be saved.

"In some cases, a city must make an economic choice between a commercial development that will bring much-needed revenue and a marginally significant building," said Mike Burnham, a city planner who drafted a proposed historic preservation policy for Whittier's

General Plan.

"You can't save every building," he said. "Historic preservation should not be an exercise in nostalgia."

Public hearings on the preservation policy are scheduled to begin before the Planning Commission next month.

If the City Council eventually adopts Burnham's preservation policy, it could clear the way for an ordinance that would require perhaps a 6- to 12-month review of any plans to modify, move or demolish buildings considered historic. Without such an ordinance, the city is essentially powerless to stop a developer from leveling a historic structure even if it is on the National Register of Historic Places, as the Southern Pacific depot is.

Despite Burnham's efforts, Bill Harrington and other preservationists say the city's action comes too late for many of Whittier's landmarks.

'Bulldozing Our Heritage'

"At some point, the citizens of Whittier have to take a stand and stop the city from bulldozing our heritage," said Harrington, a lifelong resident who has spent the last nine years restoring a 4,000-square-foot Victorian home in Uptown Village.

"We've lost the Murphy Hospital, the William Penn Hotel and, last year, the Union Pacific train station," he said. "The Southern Pacific station is next unless we persuade this city to wake up and take action."

Currently, there are no plans to demolish the Southern Pacific station, which was built in 1888 and has been on the national historic register for seven years. But the railroad company wants to abandon a 2 1/2-mile stretch of track from Santa Fe Springs to the Whittier depot.

In early August, the San Francisco-based Southern Pacific Transportation Co. asked the Interstate Commerce Commission if it could abandon its Whittier branch rail line because of declining freight traffic in the area. In 1984, the rail company moved only 43 freight cars along the line, and this year less than a dozen cars have been moved, said Jim Loveland, a Southern Pacific spokesman.

If the commerce commission grants the request, Loveland said the railroad would be free to sell the line and depot. Southern Pacific's real estate holdings along the Whittier branch are worth about $5.3 million, Loveland said.

Decision Not Imminent

A commission spokesman said a decision on Southern Pacific's abandonment request isn't likely until November.

So far, Loveland said, only one developer has contacted Southern Pacific about the depot site. Besides private developers, several business owners near the depot believe the city may claim the depot and surrounding businesses as part of its Uptown Village redevelopment efforts.

The depot is tucked among several manufacturing plants on the southern edge of the redevelopment district near Whittier Boulevard and Philadelphia Street.

One of the last Southern Pacific train stations left in Southern California that was built before the turn of the century, the depot is now leased by a small metal shop.

City officials say they have no interest in extending redevelopment to the depot or nearby businesses. But merchants, such as Robert Van Oosting, who operates a wood-carving business, Oceanic Arts, next to the depot, isn't convinced the city won't move to claim the area. "Once they pull those tracks up, the depot will probably come down, and when it does, we could be next."

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