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A Mixed Blessing : Episcopal Church's Plans for Diocesan Center on Historic Parish Site Spark Opposition


The Rev. J. Jon Bruno calls it a miracle.

The dilapidated wooden church that houses Bruno's parish and overlooks Echo Park Lake may soon be replaced by a massive, $8.4-million religious complex that will include a new sanctuary for his parish and an administrative headquarters for the 80,000-member Los Angeles Episcopalian Diocese.

"This is a God-intended project," said Bruno, who for nearly six years has served as rector of the 400-member congregation of the Church of St. Athanasius and St. Paul.

Preservationists and some Echo Park community leaders have other words in mind when they describe the proposed Diocesan Center, which would replace St. Athanasius and St. Paul at 840 Echo Park Ave.

"It looks like something out of Orange County, and we don't need any more of that. . . ," said Karen Jaeger, an Echo Park community activist.

Others have compared it to a "massive mini-mall," an "ill-conceived Santa Barbara shopping center" and a "bad Caltech building."

Those who are adamantly opposed to the three-story, Mediterranean-style complex say the project will clash with old Craftsman-style houses nearby and increase noise and traffic around Echo Park, which already is flanked by the headquarters of the Foursquare Gospel Church.

But they are most angered by the likelihood that the diocese's plan will require demolition of St. Athanasius--a rare Craftsman-style wooden sanctuary and the oldest Episcopalian church in Los Angeles.

The church's double name is the result of a reunion of two congregations in 1986. It is commonly known as St. Athanasius.

Bruno said he and his parish cannot afford to renovate the church or its community center. Left alone, he said, the facilities cannot meet the needs of the congregation or of a growing and diverse Echo Park community.

"I love this old church a lot, but I love the people in the community more," Bruno said. "The building is the least of the things to give up so we can give a ministry of Christ to the people of this area."

The issue may be decided today when a city zoning administrator conducts a public hearing on whether to grant the diocese a conditional-use permit and zoning variance for its plans.

Diocesan officials, who oversee 151 churches in Los Angeles and four other counties, are housed in an office downtown. They want to build a 40,242-square-foot stucco headquarters on St. Athanasius' 1.2 acres.

The complex would include a three-story diocesan office building, a 210-seat church for Bruno's parish, a tower, a 182-seat assembly room, a 24-bed conference center, a religious bookstore, a food distribution center, a small gymnasium and two levels of parking.

Those facilities would replace the historic sanctuary, the community center, an office and a brick building that houses a food distribution center, said Thomas Holland, project director for the diocese.

Bruno said most of his parish supports the move. The largely Latino, low-income congregation has agreed to donate to the project the site, $25,000 collected through fund-raisers and proceeds from the upcoming sale of a church organ, Bruno said.

In addition to the food distribution program, the church also is the site of an alcoholic rehabilitation program, a secondary school for severely troubled teen-agers, a gang diversion program, a Chinese senior citizens center, and counseling programs on AIDS and other issues, Bruno said.

But those programs--and his Sunday services--are being threatened by the church's increasing state of disrepair, he said. The sanctuary's walls are cracking, termites have damaged its floors and foundation, the toilets often do not work, a nine-year-old roof already needs replacing, and constant electrical and plumbing problems emerge, Bruno said.

"We're so afraid of things breaking that we limit usage," he said. "A new building won't allow many more people, but it will be more reliable."

The business community agrees, said Mike Leum, president of the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce.

"The chamber is very excited to see an organization as large as the Episcopalian Church investing as much as $8 million in the area," Leum said. "It's not like we're getting a big, major conglomerate like Union 76 to come in and put up a factory."

Some homeowner groups and preservationists, however, believe that the effects could be similar.

"The model of the proposed facility is more typical of a hotel complex by a freeway than a cluster of Craftsman structures in the peaceful and picturesque ambience of Echo Park," said Daniel Munoz, president of the Angelino Heights Community Organization. Angelino Heights is a neighboring area east of the church that consists largely of historic homes.

"The design of this new facility would dominate its surroundings and dwarf the nearby lake, reducing it to a reflecting pond," Munoz said.

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