PICO RIVERA — Over the years, Paul and Frances Flores have rented their International Club for a variety of events: dances, wedding receptions, wrestling tournaments, casino fund-raising benefits.
Now they want to convert the spacious building to a Christian center. Church services would be held three nights a week, with the six banquet rooms available the rest of the time for church-related activities or community-service programs.
There would be no more gambling. Alcohol would no longer be served on the premises.
There's just one catch: the change may violate city zoning laws, which do not allow churches in commercial areas. City officials also point out that the club, 8825 Washington Blvd., is in an area earmarked for redevelopment, and they would prefer to see businesses there that generate tax revenue.
The Floreses, who own a controlling interest in the International Club, decided to change the business after becoming "born-again" Christians. The couple attends First Fundamental Baptist Church in Monterey Park and now wants to lease their club to First Fundamental for church-related activities.
The Floreses and church supporters put their plan in motion Monday night. About 250 packed a City Council meeting to request an exemption from zoning laws. It was the largest turnout for a council meeting in at least six years, said City Manager Dennis Courtemarche.
After listening to about half an hour of testimony, the council decided to take up the matter at its Sept. 6 meeting. City officials have expressed reservations about granting an exemption, however, because of the club's location in the redevelopment area.
Assistant City Manager David Caretto said last week the International Club sits on a large parcel that would be crucial to redeveloping the area around Washington and Paramount boulevards. To revitalize the area, Caretto said the city "would probably be looking for commercial uses to produce sales tax and property tax revenue. Designating this (building) for church use would mean a loss of sales tax revenue."
The church, as a nonprofit group, might also qualify for a property tax exemption, he said.
He also pointed out that the City Council in 1982 affirmed zoning that prohibits churches in commercial zones. In Pico Rivera, zoning laws permit churches only in residential neighborhoods.
At the meeting, church attorney James L. Rather said the church would act as a commercial stimulant to the area by bringing hundreds of people into Pico Rivera who might shop in local stores and eat in local restaurants. The church also would ease the city's burden by providing free community services such as marital counseling, drug and alcohol abuse counseling and programs for senior citizens and youth, Rather added.
"Pico Rivera can profit tremendously from what we have to offer," said Alex Montoya, pastor of the church and a city resident.
Pat Gonzales, a Pico Rivera resident who commutes to the Monterey Park church, said her children would benefit by having church programs and fellowship nearby.
"I need something in Pico Rivera I can attend," she said. "It would be a lot easier for us."
After testimony from church supporters during the part of the council meeting set aside for comments from the community, Councilman Albert Natividad asked the council to consider the matter in 30 days. The proposed exemption could not be discussed Monday night because it was not on the agenda, but Mayor James Patronite commented, "You've built yourself a pretty good case here."
On Sept. 6, the council will vote on whether to study the proposed exemption. If the council favors a study, the issue will be turned over to the Planning Commission or a City Council committee. If the council opposes such a study, the church's only option would be to sue the city.
Flores said he is prepared to sue. "I want to go all the way with this thing," he said.
Attorney Rather said First Fundamental, which has established branches in the San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles and La Puente, also had to receive an exemption from the Monterey Park City Council to establish its main church in a commercial area there. The 9-year-old Monterey Park church, the closest First Fundamental church to Pico Rivera, has about 900 members.
If the city turns down First Fundamental, Rather said the church will argue that laws guaranteeing freedom to worship take precedence over zoning laws. An increasing number of cities are preventing churches from operating in commercial areas, he said, but churches can't afford land prices in most residential areas.
Regardless of the city's decision, Paul Flores said he will drop the International Club's liquor license at the end of this year, and will only rent the 32,000-square-foot facility for "Christian events."
"Wrestling, gambling--that's going to stop," said church leader Jane Wall.
Another church leased space at the International Club every Sunday for about four years beginning in 1981, Flores said, without a complaint from the city. Flores said he did not ask the city's approval because he believed he could rent to a church as he could to any other client.
Attorney Rather said his research showed that six of the 28 churches in Pico Rivera were built in commercial areas before the city was incorporated. He said a new church has not been established in Pico Rivera in 16 years. City officials said they will verify that information before the council meeting next month.
Flores said he is willing to fix up his building to comply with future redevelopment standards, but he has yet to be approached by the city.
Caretto, the assistant city manager, said the city does not have immediate plans for the redevelopment of Rosemead and Washington boulevards, but the church property "is a very large parcel that's not being well-used at the present time."