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Curtain Rising on Final Act in Struggle to Save Whittier Theater

October 08, 1989|TINA DAUNT | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — The future appears bleak for the crumbled, old Whittier Theater, a once-beautiful Depression-era film palace and centerpiece of the city.

City Manager Tom Mauk said he is prepared to ask the City Council to go ahead with plans to finish demolition of the historic theater, a shambles since it was damaged in the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake and then was partially demolished by a wrecking ball. It would be too costly for the city to repair the movie house, at the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street, he said.

Mauk said an environmental impact report released last week supports the arguments of city officials who want to raze the theater.

But local preservationists claim that the report, prepared by a Los Angeles consulting firm, is "junk," and city officials have no appreciation for the community's historic resources.

The final act to save the theater is scheduled to be played out in City Hall Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., when the council takes public testimony on the issue. The battle will be the biggest yet for the Whittier Conservancy, a powerful citizens group that for two years has fought with legal might to rehabilitate the Spanish-style theater.

"We're going to take this thing to the max," said Helen Rahder, spokeswoman for the conservancy, formed after the 1987 earthquake. "Demolition should be the last option. The city has a responsibility to protect its historic resources."

The theater would cost about $2.6 million for a developer to acquire and repair, according to the Environmental Impact Report, which the city was forced to prepare under a Superior Court order obtained by the Conservancy. According to the report, the city should be prepared to contribute at least $500,000 to make the deal appealing to an investor, an expenditure that Mauk said he adamantly opposes.

Councilman Gene Chandler said he will not vote to save the theater if it means the city must "go out on a limb" financially.

"I'm not a great lover of that theater anyway," Chandler said. "I don't know who in the world would want to come up with the money to restore it."

Mauk said that so far no developer has expressed an interest in rehabilitating the theater.

"It would cost half a million dollars just to clean up the asbestos in the building" if rehabilitation is pursued, Mauk said, adding that he doubts anyone would want to invest in the project.

"The theater is a blight, it's a disgraceful blight," Mauk said. "The silent majority is not so silent anymore. The support is there to eliminate the blight."

The debate over the future of the theater has been emotionally charged since the earthquake.

Shortly after the temblor, city building inspectors ordered the demolition of the theater because they said it was unsafe.

A wrecking crew worked on the theater for about 45 minutes before lawyers for the Whittier Conservancy arrived with a restaining order to stop the destruction.

Attorney David Dickerson had successfully argued in court that the city had to obtain an environmental impact report before razing the theater. According to the California Environmental Quality Act, an environmental impact survey must be conducted before a historic building can be destroyed.

The city fenced off the theater and its fate has been in limbo since.

The theater is owned by Peter Doerken, a developer who bought it in June, 1987, for $1.1 million. He initially planned to convert it to a performing arts center. But shortly before the earthquake, he asked the council to allow him to demolish the theater and and put a $14-million shopping center on the site. Doerken has said he would not rehabilitate the movie house, according to city officials.

If the council approves the demolition after listening to public testimony, Mauk said, the city attorney will return to court and request that the restraining order be lifted.

Once the order is lifted, the theater will be razed, probably within the next few months, Mauk predicted.

Meanwhile, Rahder said the conservancy is looking for loopholes to keep the city from demolishing the theater.

"The historic resources of this community have dwindled horrendously," Rahder said. "Yes the theater is a blight. . . . But when renovated it will stand out like a jewel."

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