The San Fernando Valley's first cultural center--a 2,865-seat theater-in-the-round built 25 years ago in Woodland Hills to showcase Broadway musicals--may soon be torn down to make way for an apartment project, officials said Thursday.
A religious group that uses the defunct Valley Music Theater as a meeting hall is selling the dome-shaped building to a developer who plans to construct 350 rental units in its place.
The Valley Circuit of Jehovah's Witnesses will move from the distinctive circular structure at 20600 Ventura Blvd. to a larger headquarters in the Newhall area, apartment developer Jay Wilton said.
The plan to demolish the concrete theater comes as Valley civic leaders continue to struggle with a controversial plan to build a 650-seat theater and 1,200-seat concert hall in a Woodland Hills public park a mile away.
Critics of the proposed "performing arts square" cultural center at Warner Park have questioned the need for such a facility and have complained that it would waste much-needed West Valley recreation space.
The Valley Music Theater was backed by entertainers Bob Hope and Art Linkletter when it was built in 1963 by pouring tons of concrete over a rounded-off hill. When the cement hardened, dirt beneath the dome was excavated.
It opened July 6, 1964, with a gala Valley premiere of "The Sound of Music" that benefited the Crippled Children's Society.
But even though the theater drew 600,000 patrons to 18 musicals, three comedies, a drama and an assortment of concerts during its first year, it foundered in 1966. Efforts to revive it by staging such attractions as professional boxing matches on the theater's circular stage also failed.
As a Jehovah's Witnesses assembly hall, the theater has drawn thousands to worship services in recent years--among them rock star Michael Jackson.
Jehovah's Witnesses elders, who are reportedly planning their move to the Santa Clarita Valley, were unavailable for comment Thursday.
Wilton confirmed that his GBW Properties Co. has entered into escrow with the church to buy the 8.3-acre site, however. He said his firm has assisted the church in finding a site in the Newhall area.
"We have a contract to purchase it," he said of the dome. "They have grown so fast that they would have to double or triple the number of services they have if they stayed. They have outgrown it."
According to Wilton, the circular building can seat about 4,000, although its parking lot can only accommodate 1,300 cars.
Wilton, completing a $70-million, 663-unit luxury apartment complex atop Chalk Hill on the east side of the Jehovah's Witnesses' property, declined to reveal how much he is paying for the site. He said his new apartments will differ architecturally from the next-door Santa Fe-themed Villa Terraza project.
"We want something entirely different that will break up the look of the facade from the boulevard," he explained.
Los Angeles city officials said preliminary plans for the church site filed by Wilton call for six buildings, each 45 feet high. Apparently none of the proposed structures will extend above a ridgeline south of the property, they said.
Confusion Over Zoning
Officials said there is some confusion, however, over the zoning for the site.
Although a 1962 rezoning reportedly exchanged residential zoning for a commercial designation needed for the Valley Music Theater, recent city land-use maps suggest that the site has a mix of residential, parking and commercial zoning, officials said.
City planners will seek to resolve the confusion at a public hearing at 10 a.m. Monday at the Van Nuys Woman's Club, said Cindy Miscikowski, chief aide to Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents the area.
"Our big concern is what the project will look like and whether anything is going to pop up over the hill" and intrude on a nearby neighborhood of single-family homes, Miscikowski said. She described the adjacent Villa Terraza project as "basically hideous."
Wilton disputed that contention, explaining that heavy landscaping--including 50-foot-tall palm trees--and a new paint scheme have softened the look of the apartments.
Woodland Hills homeowners said they plan to show up in force at Monday's hearing. They said they want guarantees that the apartments will not extend above the Chalk Hill ridgeline. A condominium project under construction on the west side of the Jehovah's Witnesses site sticks up over the hill despite earlier assurances that it would not, they said.
"We want proof," resident Paula Corby said Thursday. "We've heard these promises before."