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Hollywood Church Hopes to Derail Metro Rail Plan

June 19, 1988|RON RUSSELL | Times Staff Writer

It has survived vandals, prostitutes and changing demographics, and now that the First Southern Baptist Church of Hollywood is in the way of a proposed Metro Rail route, church members are trying to save it from the wrecking crew.

"We're in the fight of our lives, and we don't intend to go down easily," the Rev. Gary Tibbs says of the effort to preserve the historic church, whose four buildings include one built six decades ago as Hollywood's first synagogue.

Tibbs and his congregation are fighting a Southern California Rapid Transit District proposal that would replace the church with a huge portal, allowing future commuter trains to go beneath the Hollywood Freeway.

Although other property owners have their own reasons for opposing the plan, the minister believes his argument is one RTD officials have yet to hear.

"We aren't against progress, but we question whether it's progress to take down a house of the Lord just for the sake of moving people around a little faster," Tibbs said.

Fighting Since January

Parishioners launched their campaign to save the church in January, after the RTD, facing opposition from recording and broadcast studios along Sunset Boulevard's "Electronic Mile," announced a new plan for sending Metro Rail through the heart of Hollywood.

The studios threatened to leave the city unless the agency scrapped a previously preferred plan that called for an elevated route down Sunset all the way from Vermont Avenue to Vine Street. They insisted that noise and vibrations from the trains would wreak havoc with their sound-sensitive equipment.

The proposal announced in January calls for a mix of elevated construction on the eastern end of Sunset and subway construction under the freeway and Hollywood Boulevard.

The latest proposal "may sound like a neat solution to some people until you take a look at the RTD's map and see that we would no longer be on it," Tibbs said of the church at 1528 Wilton Place.

The 225 parishioners have collected 1,000 signatures from people opposed to the route. They plan to present them to RTD officials at a public hearing Tuesday.

Outside Support

Their cause has gained support elsewhere. A 25-member citizens' advisory panel to the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan has endorsed placing the entire Metro Rail system underground as a way to lessen disruptions to churches, businesses and residents.

And City Councilman Michael Woo, whose district includes Hollywood, has come out in favor of an underground system if new RTD cost estimates released last week prove to be accurate. The new estimates project that the portion of the project that includes Hollywood would cost $1.68 billion, regardless of whether it is all underground or a mix of tunnels and elevated tracks.

RTD officials estimate there may be only a "negligible" difference between building the system entirely underground versus the mixed aerial and underground system now envisioned. However, others are doubtful. Two members of a key Los Angeles County Transportation Commission panel monitoring Metro Rail have called for independent confirmation of the new figures.

Pleased With Support

Still, Woo's support came as good news to church members and other property owners who would be affected by the plan.

"It's what we've been saying all along, and it's what we're working to convince the RTD to consider," said Martin Navorian, co-owner of the Dunes Motel, 5625 W. Sunset Blvd.

"We've worked hard to build this business over the last 15 years, and we don't want to lose it," he said. "Of course, the RTD says they will make us whole (financially). But in the hotel business, you establish yourself at a location, and if you have to go someplace else, there's no guarantee it'll work."

That is an argument Tibbs often uses in making his pitch to save the church.

"Metro Rail would destroy us," he said. "This is a poor neighborhood, and we're a poor church. If this church disappeared, a lot of our people would be cut off."

While not affiliated with the church, a federally financed Head Start program that uses the church's facilities to serve about 30 neighborhood children also would be affected, he said.

By law, the RTD has the authority to buy property it needs, with a jury setting the price when negotiations fail. But officials say court proceedings have been relatively few. In acquiring property along the 4.4-mile stretch from downtown to Alvarado Street for Metro Rail's first phase, only about 15% of the negotiations ended up in court, said Jeff Lyon, the agency's director of real estate.

No Interest in Selling

Tibbs said church officials "haven't really thought much" about the potential value of the property "since we have no interest in selling at any price."

"Right now, we're pinning our hopes on getting our message out about the importance of our church, and doing what we can to push the RTD to consider the (entirely underground) alternative," the minister said.

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