WHITTIER — Los Angeles County has pulled the rug from under a developer's plan to use a county park for a $14-million shopping plaza that would also require destruction of the 1930s-era Whittier Theater.
In order to build the shopping plaza, the developer has said he would need to use both the theater property and the adjoining county-owned McNees Park. But the county has told the city that the Board of Supervisors will not give up the park for any strictly commercial project.
If the county's refusal to give up the park causes the shopping center plan to falter, it could improve prospects for restoring the historic film house, said Michael Sullens, chairman of a historic preservation group that has lobbied to save the theater.
But City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said the theater should be razed regardless of the county's decision because of damage it suffered in the Oct. 1 earthquake. "I think the theater is so badly shaken that demolition is the right course of action," Mauk said.
The Board of Supervisors had been inclined to support annexing the tiny park to the city if the proposal was to restore the Whittier Theater as a regional performing arts center, said Tom Hageman, assistant chief deputy to Supervisor Pete Schabarum. But a commercial project is different, he said.
"The county was aware of the plans in the original phases and came close to reaching an agreement for giving up part of the park for a cultural center," Hageman said. Schabarum's office has since informed the city "that the county was not interested in involving the park as part of a commercial project," Hageman said.
Emil Neshanian, project manager for the owner of the theater, Doerken Properties Inc. of Santa Monica, said this week that he was not aware of the county's position and could not comment on whether Doerken would pull out of the project if the park land were not included.
Mauk said he learned about the county's position during an interview with The Times on Monday, but Hageman said Schabarum's office informed redevelopment project manager Susan Moeller about the issue Nov. 18. Mauk later said he had been told last week, but did not recall until he was reminded of it on Monday.
He said the county's refusal to give up the park would not change his recommendation to the council to demolish the theater.
But Mayor Pro Tem Sabina Schwab, who supports theater restoration efforts, disagreed. "With this new information, I think we should have another discussion about this, and soon," Schwab said.
Mauk told the City Council of the county's position about 11 p.m. Tuesday after the council returned from a closed session at end of the public meeting. Only reporters were present to hear Mauk's comments.
"If (the county's position) holds, it's probably an insurmountable problem for Dr. Doerken because of his development proposal," Mauk said.
Schwab asked Mauk if the county had been told about the proposal for a commercial project on the theater site, and Mauk said he did not know.
"I think that's important," Schwab said, noting that Whittier's credibility with the county could be damaged by not keeping the Board of Supervisors informed.
Just After Meeting
The disclosure of the county's position came one day after the council's Nov. 17 meeting. At that meeting the council rejected a proposal to protect the theater from demolition for six months under the city's historic preservation ordinance.
Demolition began the next day, but was halted when a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles granted preservation activists a temporary restraining order blocking further destruction. A wrecking crew left a gaping hole in a shop next to the theater, but the main theater building was not damaged.
The petition, filed by Save Our Historic Buildings, argued that the theater is covered by a provision of the California Environmental Quality Act that requires preparation of an environmental impact report before a historic building is demolished. A hearing on the request for an environmental impact report will be held Dec. 8.
Doerken bought the 1930s theater in June for $1.1 million. He said at the time that he intended to restore the theater, but in September he said restoration was not economically feasible and he wanted to raze the theater to build the $14-million shopping plaza.
The delay and money involved in preparing an environmental impact report may make Doerken more receptive to selling the property, Sullens said. It would take at least six weeks to prepare the report, which could cost up to $20,000, city officials said.
"It would seem that the price (for the theater) is getting better and better all the time," Sullens said. "Doerken has already taken it down . . . (in value) by knocking holes in it. If he could not get the park for his development, then it would seem to put him in a better position" to sell the property.