Conflicting views among nearly 150 community activists, residents and church leaders last week prompted a Los Angeles planning official to delay for up to a month his decision on whether to allow the Los Angeles Episcopalian Diocese to build an $8.4-million religious complex in Echo Park.
After a boisterous, three-hour hearing, Jon Perica, associate zoning administrator for the city of Los Angeles, said he needs several weeks to determine whether to grant a conditional use permit for the proposed diocesan center, which most likely would require the demolition of the oldest Episcopalian sanctuary in Los Angeles.
Perica also said his eventual decision probably will be appealed, which could postpone the building plans for at least several months.
Diocesan officials, who oversee 151 churches in Los Angeles and four other counties, want to build a 40,252-square-foot, Mediterranean-style headquarters at 840 Echo Park Ave., across from Echo Park Lake. The 1.2-acre site now houses the Church of St. Athanasius and St. Paul, a century-old Craftsman-style wooden sanctuary.
The three-story, stucco complex would include a diocesan office building, a new 210-seat church that would replace St. Athanasius, a 65-foot 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.
"We wanted to have a place of serenity that is compatible with the park," the Rev. Richard Van Horn, canon of the diocese, told Perica last week. "We hope this is a sensitive design."
Diocesan officials say the aging St. Athanasius church, moved to Echo Park from a downtown site in 1916, is too dilapidated to repair and include in the proposed complex. They are offering to give the structure to any group willing to cart it away, but no offers are pending, they said.
Barbara Hoff, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, told Perica that preservationists want to persuade the diocese to build its headquarters around the structure, or find another group willing to relocate it. Nearly a dozen residents living near St. Athanasius echoed Hoff's concern about preserving the church. They also complained that the proposed complex would ruin their view of Echo Park Lake, clash with Craftsman-style homes nearby and increase traffic and noise.
"Echo Park is the last oasis of old Los Angeles," one resident said at the hearing. "What you should see is the irreversible damage that is bound to occur."
In an environmental review completed earlier this year, a city planner concluded that the diocesan center would cause no serious traffic, noise or aesthetic problems in the community.
But the Los Angeles Conservancy and some community leaders are challenging that review as inadequate. The report violates state law because it ignores the likely demolition of St. Athanasius, which preservationists consider a historic and cultural resource, Hoff said.