WHITTIER — Local conservationists, who fought for two years to save the Whittier Theater, suffered a bitter defeat in Superior Court this week when a judge accepted the city's environmental impact report and cleared the way for demolition of the Depression-era movie house.
Superior Court Judge John Zebrowski ruled Monday that Whittier officials have successfully completed the state-required report and can demolish the theater if his ruling is not appealed by March 12. The theater was severely damaged in the October, 1987, earthquake.
David Dickerson, a lawyer for the conservationists, argued in court Monday that the city needs to study ways to renovate the building and attract developers.
But Zebrowski disagreed.
"I hate to see historic buildings destroyed, the same as anyone else," the judge said. "But I don't see what the source of the obligation is under (state law) to consider anything further than what the city has considered." The city is not required to find "some savior" for the building, he said.
The city began to demolish the theater shortly after the earthquake, claiming that it was a public hazard. But Dickerson was able to stop the demolition after he successfully argued in court that the city had not complied with a provision of the California Environmental Quality Act that requires an environmental impact study before a historic building can be demolished.
In June, 1988, Superior Court Judge Kurt J. Lewin ordered the city to comply with the act. After a year and a half of study, the City Council voted in October to accept a final draft of the environmental impact report, to inform the court that the city had met the state requirements and to ask permission to proceed with the demolition.
According to the environmental impact report, the theater would cost about $2.6 million to acquire and repair. In addition, the city would need to subsidize the project, something City Council members say they will not do.
So far, no one has expressed an interest in repairing the theater, city officials said.
And although conservationists have talked to a few interested developers, they have come up empty-handed.
"No one from the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Whittier Conservancy, or other organizations has made a proposal, and the reason why is because it is not financially feasible," City Atty. James Markman told the judge.
But some conservancy members believe the city has an obligation to save its historic resources, and they plan to make the theater an issue in the spring City Council election.
"I hope that the community realizes the real impact of this decision," conservancy member Anthony Santana said in an interview after the hearing. "It clearly demonstrates that Whittier citizens take a back seat to outside development interests. I hope that the voters in the next election choose civic-minded, unbiased representatives."
But City Manager Tom Mauk defended the city's position on the theater, saying Whittier has no choice but to tear down the old movie house.
"We're talking about a multimillion-dollar investment without financial return," Mauk said. "That is a commitment the city cannot make financially."
Mauk predicted that demolition of the theater would start almost immediately if no one appeals the court decision before the March 12 deadline.
Whittier Conservancy members said they might appeal the judge's decision, which could delay the wrecking ball for months.
"It is just a relief that some common sense seems finally to have prevailed in this whole thing," Mauk said. "The city of Whittier is committed to eliminating the blight. This is one important step forward."
NEXT STEP Whittier conservationists have until March 12 to appeal a Los Angeles County Superior Court decision paving the way for the city to demolish the historic Whittier Theater. If the citizens decide not to fight the ruling, demolition of the theater can start immediately after the deadline. Members of the Whittier Conservancy have said that they might appeal, which could stave off the wrecking ball for months.