WHITTIER — More than 100 people packed a City Council meeting Tuesday to deliver emotional pleas for saving the old Whittier Theater from demolition, but prospects appear bleak for the Depression-era film palace that was declared unsafe due to earthquake damage.
"I think that building is a goner," City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said after the meeting.
But among those speaking at the meeting were lawyers specializing in historic preservation law, who contend there are state regulations that may stand between a wrecking crew and the theater. Michael Sullens, president of Save Our Historic Buildings, said his group is considering legal action against the city to stop demolition.
"They had better be sure they're doing the absolute right thing that's within the law. We'll be watching them," said Sullens, whose group gathered 2,093 signatures in six days to save the theater.
Developer Peter Doerken bought the Whittier Theater for $1 million in June and told city officials he wanted to restore it. But about three months after escrow closed, Doerken said further studies had shown the theater wouldn't make money and he proposed replacing it with a $14 million shopping plaza at the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street.
Claim Inflated Estimate
City redevelopment officials said that Doerken's estimates for what it would cost to restore the theater were inflated. But the earthquake took the steam out of that debate, because it further weakened the building and made it even more costly to restore. The city says it cannot afford to subsidize the restoration.
Two of three structural engineers who examined the theater after the Oct. 1 earthquake reported it was beyond repair, and the third said further tests were needed to determine the extent of damages. Those conclusions were enough for Building Department Director Richard Hubbinger, who said at the meeting that the theater is unsafe.
Mauk said Doerken deserves the same treatment as other owners of earthquake damaged buildings, and would be formally notified in three or four days that the building would have to be fixed or destroyed. Since Doerken does not support restoration, Mauk predicted demolition would begin in a few weeks.
The City Council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency, voted unanimously Tuesday to continue negotiations with Doerken toward final agreement on the shopping plaza project.
Afterward, the council listened for more than an hour to pleas from a parade of area residents, merchants and others who support preserving the theater. Among them were representatives of the Whittier Historical Society, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the California Society of Theater Historians and lawyers specializing in historic preservation law.
Bob Halliday, president of the Whittier Historical Society, asked that demolition be delayed for 60 days to allow more testing on the structure. He urged the council to act with caution since the earthquake had wiped out many historic buildings in town.
"That's why the preservation of the Whittier Theater becomes so important. It is truly a landmark of Whittier and could become a cultural center for the entire area," Halliday said.
Councilman Victor Lopez said it would be difficult to allow the building to be demolished, but "the way it stands now, it's a nuisance."
"I think it's time we stop thinking of mortar and brick and think of revitalizing the city economically," Lopez said, adding that Doerken's project would serve as an example that developers are not afraid to invest in Whittier.
Cites State Law
But William Delvac, a Los Angeles lawyer who spoke at the meeting, said state law may stop the city from ordering demolition. He said that the California Environmental Quality Act provides that historical resources cannot be destroyed unless the proper environmental studies have been conducted.
Delvac said the state law could be avoided only if the building were in danger of immediate collapse. Engineers who inspected the building have disagreed on that finding.
"Courts have recently been inclined to issue stay orders for historic buildings where adminstrative decisions (to order destruction) have been involved," said Delvac, a member of the American Bar Assn.'s historic preservation committee. "If the city says fix or destroy, that assumes the building can be repaired . . . that would require a study under state law."
Doerken's shopping plaza proposal drew more criticism from the City Council at the meeting when one of the developer's representatives said the Redevelopment Agency might be asked to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies.
Mark Briggs, representing Doerken, predicted the plaza would bring the city at least $170,000 a year in sales tax revenue. Briggs didn't specify a subsidy amount, but said the city would be able to recoup its investment in three to six years through sales tax revenue.
Mayor Pro Tem Sabina Schwab questioned Doerken's intentions, saying the developer first supported restoring the theater and then proposed a commercial development without city subsidy.
"Now you're asking for assistance and that was not part of the program," Schwab said as the audience applauded.
When Doerken was planning to restore the theater, the city agreed to use its public powers to acquire tiny McNees Park next to the theater and seal off several streets to make way for the project. Then Doerken proposed the shopping plaza--but only if he could still have McNees Park and the street adjustments.
While some city officials have expressed unhappiness with Doerken's proposal, they say they have felt there is no other redevelopment option. The City Council will consider final approval of the project in 60 days when there will be a public hearing on its environmental impact and on whether the city should use its public powers to benefit a commercial development.