WHITTIER — While lawyers for a historic preservation group and the city argued in court last week about whether demolition of the Whittier Theater should be stopped, a wrecking ball destroyed part of the 1930s film palace before a judge ordered the destruction halted.
City officials said Wednesday morning that demolition would be delayed until the matter was resolved in court, but they then allowed razing to begin a few hours later.
Got Order to Stop
A wrecking crew worked on the theater for about 45 minutes Wednesday afternoon until a city official delivered word that a temporary restraining order to stop demolition had been ordered by Superior Court Judge Harry K. Fields of Los Angeles.
Bulldozers left a gaping hole in the wall of the shops next to the theater, but the theater building itself was left intact, said Assistant City Manager Robert Griego.
The request for the restraining order was filed by organizers of Save Our Historic Buildings, a group formed after the October earthquakes. The group has gathered more than 2,000 signatures in support of saving the Whittier Theater.
The lawsuit contends that the city did not comply with provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, which require that an environmental impact report be completed before an historic building is demolished.
"I think we have a very strong case and I think the city knows it," said David Dickerson, a Whittier lawyer representing Save Our Historic Buildings.
"It's very clear to me that the city knew they had been caught in court and that they had jolly well better do (the demolition) before they got a call from a judge ordering them to stop," Dickerson said.
On Wednesday morning, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk told The Times that demolition would not start until Thursday. "We intend to start soon, but we're not going to undermine their effort by rushing in there to demolish," Mauk said.
But on Thursday, Mauk said demolition had proceeded because responsibility for tearing down the theater shifted to property owner and developer Peter Doerken of Santa Monica. The city was going to pay the $160,000 in demolition costs and seek reimburse ment through federal disaster relief programs, Mauk said.
However, the demolition bid--which Doerken had obtained--did not include a minimum wage provision and thus was disqualified from reimbursement under federal standards, Mauk said. Doerken was notified that it would take several days for the city to solicit new bids. With that news, Mauk said, Doerken decided to proceed with the demolition on his own. The city clerk issued the permit for the wrecking about mid-day Wednesday.
Lawyers for Doerken and the city had been notified that Dickerson was seeking a restraining order before demolition began. Mauk said he did not advise Doerken to wait until after the matter was decided in court.
"Why should we? It's his property and I didn't feel it was our role to do that," Mauk said.
Doerken did not return calls seeking comment.
Mauk said he is not surprised that the restraining order was granted. "I could get a judge to issue a restraining order to stop giving milk to babies. Anybody can get a restraining order for anything these days," he said.
For months, the City Council had been arguing about whether to allow the theater to be demolished so Doerken could build a $14-million shopping center. Doerken originally proposed restoring the theater. But he changed his mind after buying the property, saying he had discovered it would be too costly to restore.
Doerken's case for tearing down the theater was strengthened after the October earthquakes, which caused structural damage to the 1930s-era building at the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street.
The council had placed the theater under the city's historic preservation ordinance, which protected the building from demolition for six months. That protection expired in August. After a heated debate at Tuesday night's meeting, the council rejected extending that protection for another six months and Mauk said demolition would begin as soon as possible.
Supporters of the Whittier Theater had been hinting for weeks that they might sue to stop demolition of the building, and Mauk said he looked forward to having the issue resolved.
"The (court) process is one that will work to determine what is required. If (a report) is required, we'll do it," he said.
But Michael Sullens, chairman of Save Our Historic Buildings, challenged Mauk's assertion that the city wanted the courts to decide the theater's fate.
"If that was what they wanted, then why didn't they do it? Why did they throw it on our shoulders?" Sullens asked, adding that his group has accrued about $1,700 in legal fees so far.
Mauk said the city did not order Doerken to prepare an environmental impact report because "It's a public safety, disaster cleanup issue. The environmental rules are not the same as under ordinary circumstances."