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Plan to Turn Theater Into Eatery May Be Landmark's Last Hope


WHITTIER — Once again, the Whittier Theater has been snatched from the path of the wrecking ball. The city's Redevelopment Agency has voted to pursue a bold plan that might transform the crumbling landmark into an Old Spaghetti Factory, a popular chain restaurant.

The plan calls for the city to purchase the theater for $2 million and lease it to the restaurant for 20 years. Councilmen, acting as the city's Redevelopment Agency on Tuesday, called for city officials to continue investigating what would be Whittier's largest investment in a redevelopment project.

The Old Spaghetti Factory restaurants are all built inside historical buildings in decaying neighborhoods. Antique furniture is imported from Europe, and each restaurant displays a trolley car inside. For about $6 an entree, the family restaurants serve Italian dinners.

Preservationists hailed the decision as an important victory in their stubborn efforts to save the 1929 structure, which has been declared a historical landmark. Until recently, many city officials agreed with City Manager Thomas G. Mauk, who once described the building as an "eyesore" that needs to be torn down.

The owner of the theater, Doerken Properties Inc., has been attempting to raze the theater to make way for a $14-million shopping mall ever since it was damaged by the 1987 Whittier earthquake. But a lawsuit filed by preservationists and a ruling last June by the state Office of Historical Preservation delayed the demolition.

"This theater has nine lives," said Phil Witner, a Whittier preservationist, after Tuesday's meeting. "It's come so close to being wrecked so many times. This is its last and best shot."

The latest plan calls for the city to purchase the theater with a bank loan and lease it the restaurant for 20 years. In order for the plan to work, several pieces would have to fall into place perfectly, according to consultants with Keyser Marston Associates. Keyser Marston is a Los Angeles firm hired by the city to analyze the renovation project.

The city will have to buy the property for $2 million and will negotiate with Doerken, who has asked $2.5 million for the site. The Old Spaghetti Factory would be required to invest up to $3 million in repairs to the run-down building. Finally, the project would have to gross $2.5 million in annual sales for the city to break even and repay its loan in 20 years.

The Keyser Marston study said the project might only make $2.25 million in sales annually. "I don't want to be the Grinch here," analyst Kathleen Head warned city officials Tuesday. "But you don't have a lot of leeway in these projections."

Councilmen debated whether the gamble was worth it.

Councilman Robert F. Woehrmann worried that the project could go "belly-up" in five years. "I don't care about a historical building or anything else," he said. "It's too big of a public risk to spend $2 million to support a restaurant."

Woehrmann said he has visited the Old Spaghetti restaurant in San Francisco. It was "not all that superb," he said.

Councilwoman Helen McKenna-Rahder said none of the chain's two dozen restaurants has failed yet. The restaurants are "catalysts" in run-down urban neighborhoods, she said. "These restaurants turn places around. This could lead to a renaissance for Whittier," she said. "I don't see how we can lose, and in 20 years, we'll have the building."

The agency's vote Tuesday clears the way for city officials to continue exploring and debating the financial feasibility of the project.

But there is not much time left. Doerken has sued the city and state, claiming that the order to delay demolition is illegal.

Last week, the developer also invited the public to make bids on several old items from the theater, including movie seats and the elegant former curtain. That move is one of the last steps the developer is required to take before the prohibition against demolition will be lifted.

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