WHITTIER — A developer who six months ago wanted to restore the Whittier Theater now says the project would be a losing proposition, and instead wants to replace the Depression-era film palace with an $11-million shopping plaza.
After more than two years of trying to save the Whittier, including passage last year of an emergency ordinance preventing the theater from being sold or torn down for 45 days, city officials say it appears the Redevelopment Agency will approve the commercial project proposed by Doerken Properties of Santa Monica.
City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said Doerken's new proposal came as a surprise to the agency. "I think the council had not been told before that the theater was not a possibility . . . but there has been a serious question as to whether it would be economically viable at any point," Mauk said.
In February, the City Council enthusiastically endorsed Doerken's proposal to develop the site as an entertainment mall, restoring the 1,000-seat theater and adding restaurants and specialty shops.
Park Land Acquired
The firm bought the movie house for $1.1 million from the Pacific Theater chain in June, and the City Council cleared the way for the development, moving to acquire tiny McNees Park next to the theater from Los Angeles County.
But late last month, Doerken officials appeared before the Redevelopment Agency and said studies completed this summer show that the theater would lose money unless the city would agree to subsidize it. Armed with a barrage of charts and artist's renderings, the developer proposed that the theater be destroyed and the site be used for a commercial center that would be a "truly landmark western entrance for the city of Whittier."
Doerken's proposal leaves the city with few options. If the plan is rejected, the boarded-up Whittier Theater site is likely to remain an eyesore because no other development offers have come forth.
But the proposal was greeted with some skepticism.
"The actual wording in the (original) proposal was that we would become the gateway to the San Gabriel Valley. Now you say we'll be the western gateway to the city," Mayor Pro Tem Sabina Schwab said at the agency meeting. "We've come down a long way. . . . Frankly, I'm disappointed."
Phil Wintner, president of the Whittier Historical Society, objected to Doerken's plan to tear down the old theater.
"What you would be doing if you approved this would be destroying the only landmark building" in the city, he told agency members.
"Whittier has not been renowned for saving its landmarks. It should not be torn down in a lighthearted manner," he said.
But other agency members considered restoration a lost cause.
"The theater was one of the best around at that time . . . but there's no way you can save that theater," Councilman Victor Lopez said in an interview. "I grew up in Whittier and I'm sentimental about the theater, too. But we all get old and we all lose our function and have to pass on."
Subsidies Are Common
Officials of Doerken Properties said it would cost $2.5 million to $3 million to restore the theater and would require an annual subsidy from the city of $500,000 to $2 million.
However, city officials are questioning those figures, particularly the subsidy, and intend to report to the agency on that matter when the Doerken proposal is reconsidered Sept. 22.
Robert McCann, president of a Seattle architectural and consulting firm that specializes in restoring theaters, said cities comparable to Whittier typically support a 1,000-seat theater with a subsidy of $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
"I would have the suspicion that (Doerken's) numbers were either an error in computation or represented a different aspect of theater operation" such as a larger complex, McCann said in an interview.
McCann, whose firm was the architect for renovations of the Wilshire Theater and the Pasadena Playhouse, said the city would be wise to consider the accuracy of Doerken's figures and whether there are other options for preserving the Whittier.
"You would be able to keep that building intact, you would be able to produce shows, but you don't have to keep it at the original seating capacity to do that," said McCann, who went on a walk-through inspection of the building earlier this year. "There is a solution short of tearing it down and short of totally remodeling it and keeping it exactly the way it is."
The shops built into the existing Whittier Theater provide a commercial opportunity that many older theaters lack, McCann said. "I believe it can be done so as to allow investors . . . to not go bankrupt by virtue of the theater not being able to produce an income," he said.
City redevelopment staff members are working to verify the accuracy of Doerken's figures for restoring the theater, and have asked a structural engineer to review the developer's reports. "Preliminary analysis indicates the rehabilitation costs are excessive," said Susan Moeller, redevelopment project manager.