WHITTIER — Historic preservationists have won the latest round in their nine-month fight to save the Whittier Theater.
A Superior Court judge ruled last week that city officials had acted illegally in allowing partial demolition of the 1930s film palace after the Oct. 1 earthquake.
"It has been a long and difficult battle," Whittier Conservancy attorney David Dickerson said, "and we hope the resolution of this case will send a message (to city leaders)."
The conservancy obtained a temporary injunction in October blocking the city from allowing the building to be razed until a full hearing could be conducted.
The preservationists alleged that the city had not complied with a provision of the California Environmental Quality Act that requires an environmental impact study before a historic building can be demolished. The city held that it was exempt because earthquake damage had created an emergency.
But Judge Kurt J. Lewin of the Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled that there is no emergency, partly because of the city's inaction in the last six months to try to resolve the controversy. The judge ordered the city to comply with the environmental quality act, which gives city officials the options of conducting an environmental study or declaring that demolition would not affect the area.
Dickerson said that he plans to try to recover more than $10,000 in legal fees from the city and that he will request a meeting with city officials to discuss redevelopment options.
The conservancy would like to see the theater restored, possibly as a performing arts center, but city officials have said no developers are interested.
Dickerson said he believes that Lewin's ruling obligates the city to investigate the restoration option: "(The ruling) is a tool . . . we hope to use to plan for the future of the building."
In January, the city ordered theater owner Peter Doerken to prepare a small-scale environmental impact study, but so far Doerken has not started the study, said Anne O'Donnell, a Whittier redevelopment analyst. Emil Neshanian, a project manager at Doerken Properties, declined comment on the study and the judge's ruling.
O'Donnell said she is unsure what impact Lewin's ruling would have, because the city has already ordered Doerken to conduct a limited study.
Unless the city condemns and acquires the theater property, O'Donnell said, there is little that can be done to force Doerken to complete the study.
She said city redevelopment officials would be willing to discuss the restoration potential of the theater: "We don't like it being an eyesore any better than anyone else does."
The theater complex has remained partly demolished and fenced off since October. Doerken bought the theater in June, 1987, for $1.1 million and said he planned to turn the building into a performing arts center. He returned to the City Council in September, proposing to demolish the theater and replace it with an $11 million shopping center.
The City Council was considering Doerken's proposal when the earthquake struck, damaging the theater. City building inspectors declared the theater unsafe, and Doerken was issued a demolition permit.
Bulldozers had started razing shops that were part of the theater complex when preservationists obtained the temporary restraining order blocking demolition. The main theater building remains intact.