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2-Year-Old Conservancy Becomes Whittier's Most Vocal Adversary


WHITTIER — The bumper sticker on Helen Rahder's car puts it quite plainly: "Think Globally, Act Locally."

And for two years Rahder and other vocal members of the Whittier Conservancy have followed that motto with fervor and determination.

The preservationist organization virtually arose from the rubble of the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake, holding its first meeting within a week to plan a march and other efforts to pressure the city to preserve historic buildings that were badly damaged. As more and more buildings were demolished, more residents joined the conservancy.

Today, the group, which claims to have a core of 30 members and a mailing list of 700, is the most vocal residents' organization in Whittier.

The conservancy's form of activism is often controversial and eyebrow-raising. Rahder, who displays a biting wit, has no qualms about lashing out at city officials. "They would bulldoze all the historic buildings and put up ugly pink-stucco apartments, and then we would look like Orange County," Rahder, the group's issues coordinator and a founder, said in a recent interview.

When an important issue concerning historic preservation is before the City Council, members inundate city officials with letters voicing their opinions. The group has no problem packing a City Council meeting.

In addition, the group's core members, which include several lawyers, archeologists and historians, are well-versed on the state laws and local zoning codes, forcing city officials to take notice of what they are saying. The conservancy has sued the city twice, and won both times, in efforts to save two historic buildings damaged in the quake.

Some city officials cringe at the mention of the conservancy. Privately, they sometimes describe members of the citizens' group as wild-eyed preservationists. The irritation of council members at the conservancy members' forceful, sometimes insulting demeanor is obvious at meetings. Officials roll their eyes, tap their pens, look at the clock.

"Their methods are just not correct," Mayor Victor Lopez said. "They try to mislead people; They say we don't care about the community."

Others offer more diplomatic assessments. They say public comments are important to city government. Some city officials say they realize that the group will continue to be a vocal--and important--force in the community, which for years was without such activism.

"They are very eloquent," Councilman Myron Claxton said. "They have a real good understanding of what's going on. The more interest in the community, the better, even though we disagree on things."

The disagreements between members of the conservancy and city officials often have centered on one thing: money.

Conservancy members believe the city has a responsibility to spend public money to save the community's historic buildings.

"We are fighting to save the gradual denigration of Whittier," said John Smith, the vice president of the conservancy. "The older people say they are feeling robbed of their heritage. The young say they (city officials) are destroying the thing that makes Whittier unique."

Rahder added: "California is a sea of stucco tract homes and mini-malls. But Whittier is different. That's what we are trying to save. That's why we are here."

City officials say they would like to accommodate the conservancy's desire to save historic buildings, but the effort would cost too much.

"I recognize the importance of conservation," Claxton said. "But we've got to be realistic about things. The city is just not made of money."

Recently the group lost two major battles, largely because of finances.

In September, the City Council voted against a proposal to reface the Harvey Apartments, destroyed in the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake, with the original, 100-year-old bricks. To do so would have cost about $50,000, the project architect told the council.

The city offered to come up with half the money if local preservationists came up with the rest. When the conservationists failed to raise the money, the City Council gave the architect permission to stucco the building, a less costly method than using the bricks. The city then decided to use the bricks to build other structures.

Vote Was Unanimous

On Tuesday night, the conservancy suffered a major setback when the City Council voted unanimously to demolish the historic Whittier Theater, at Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street. Council members voted without comment, but previously expressed concern over the cost of saving the theater.

The conservancy had obtained a court order two years ago stopping the city from demolishing the historic film palace until an environmental impact report was conducted. Conservancy officials said they will return to court in an effort to stop the demolition.

Despite the two recent losses, the conservancy has accomplished much in the past two years, city officials acknowledge.

The activists have been instrumental in persuading the city to allow only single-family houses to be built in much of the Uptown area, where developers were trying to demolish old, earthquake damaged homes and build apartment complexes in their place.

Park Historic District

The conservancy also was influential in persuading the city to declare the area around Central Park as a historic district. The homes there cannot be altered without approval from the city.

In addition, the group has stressed the importance of conducting environmental impact reports before the buildings are razed or new development started.

"We are not out to save every old brick and piece of wood in the city," Rahder said. "What we are trying to save is our quality of life before someone rips it out from under us.

"If we care enough about the local environment, it will have a domino effect on the larger picture--the state, national or global level. It all starts at home."

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