LONG BEACH — With no more last-minute reprieves available, demolition of the historic Pacific Coast Club has begun in earnest.
Workers began tearing down the tip of the building's tower Tuesday after spending two weeks gutting the interior. Within four months, the distinctive building on Ocean Boulevard will be gone.
"It's just very disheartening," said preservationist Renee Simon, who fought to save the 62-year-old downtown edifice. "We think it's a great loss. It's a loss of some of the character of the city, the history of the city."
Owner Rob Bellevue plans to build a 16-story, $40-million condominium on the site. Bellevue, who worked with preservationists for almost a year to save the building, said the city gave him no choice but to tear it down.
In May, the City Council, by a 5-3 vote, killed an alternate proposal for a hotel. That plan would have saved part of the building but would have extended the building onto the beach and blocked some shoreline view. Residents of the neighboring Villa Riviera condominiums vehemently opposed the hotel project.
Since then, Bellevue has been involved in talks with the Coalition to Preserve Historic Long Beach, whose members commissioned their own study and provided alternate plans for the club. But Bellevue rejected the coalition's suggestions, arguing that the group's main plan, turning the club into housing for the affluent elderly, would have lost about $10 million annually. City Manager James Hankla agreed that such a project would lose money.
But Simon, who heads the coalition, insisted last week that its plan would have worked. "A lot depends on how much profit one wants to make. I can't tell somebody to take less money or take greater risks," Simon said.
Bellevue said he delayed demolition as long as he could in a bid to come up with a new plan. As late as last month, Bellevue said he could agree to a compromise proposal that included congregate care for the elderly and a hotel only if everyone--council members, preservationists and neighbors--went along with it.
But behind-the-scenes talks with leaders of Villa Riviera showed that residents would not back a hotel project in that spot, according to Bellevue. The compromise, a variation of the coalition's plan, included some building onto the beach. So Bellevue proceeded with the demolition. He expects the condominiums to be built within the next two years.
Bellevue said he is just as upset as the preservationists about tearing down the structure.
"Every time that I go in the building now, and they're taking it down, I get a sick feeling in my stomach," he said. "I don't enjoy going into that building anymore, because I devoted so much time and effort to trying to save it."
The structure is one of three Long Beach buildings on the Department of the Interior's National Registry of Historic Places. The club--with its sumptuous main rooms, high, oak-beamed ceilings and huge chandeliers--once catered to the city's elite. It became vacant in 1970 and was condemned as a public nuisance by the city in 1984.
Since then, the building has been used as a site for the filming of horror movies. And during this spring's mayoral race, it has become a campaign issue.
Mayor Ernie Kell was in the majority last year when the City Council rejected Planning Commission approval of the hotel project that would have saved part of the building. Councilwoman Jan Hall was in the minority that would have approved the hotel.
Kell, the city's appointed mayor, and Hall are facing one another in a June 7 runoff for the full-time mayor's post. Hall has blamed Kell for failing to save the building, but Kell has said it would have set a bad precedent to allow private construction on the beach.
Simon said if anything good is to come out of the club's destruction, it could be in the form of new ordinances protecting the city's historic buildings from demolition. Pressure on the City Council--particularly at a time of a mayoral runoff between two of its members--may be the push needed for new local legislation, she said.
"The city is celebrating its 100th birthday," Simon noted. "These buildings are part of that heritage. They give a city a sense of place. If all you see are new buildings . . . (you end up with) a Newport Beach. Not that there is anything wrong with Newport Beach or Irvine, but this city is not an instant city."