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Zoning Official OKs Episcopal Church Plan for Echo Park Center


A Los Angeles zoning administrator has approved a plan by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles to build new headquarters in Echo Park on the present site of the city's oldest Episcopal church.

In a decision issued Friday, Zoning Administrator Jon Perica granted a conditional-use permit to construct an $8.4-million Diocesan Center at 840-850 Echo Park Ave., facing the east shore of Echo Park Lake.

The three-story church facility is to include a sanctuary, an assembly room, a bookstore, diocesan administration office and conference center with 18 guest rooms and subterranean parking for 135 automobiles.

The existing church, reputedly built in 1865 and transported to the site in 1916, would either have to be relocated again or demolished. Home to the combined parishes of St. Athanasius and St. Paul, it would be replaced by a 210-seat sanctuary.

In his decision, Perica rejected the arguments of preservation groups that the wooden sanctuary, built in a style resembling the Craftsman, should be protected as a historically significant building. His only concession was to require a one-month waiting period before removal of the structure, which has been denied landmark status by the Los Angeles City Council.

The church would be required to notify at least three preservation groups and offer the building free to any group that would pay for its relocation.

Barbara Hoff, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, said the time allowed is inadequate. Hoff said the conservancy's board of directors would probably appeal the decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals on the basis that an environmental impact report should have been prepared.

Before the zoning hearing two weeks ago, a city planner concluded that no such report was necessary because the church building was not designated a landmark.

Hoff contends that the evident age and historical significance of the building put it under the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, regardless of any local decision.

Although the Diocesan Center plan is supported by the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, it was opposed by some community leaders, who said the center would be too large and aesthetically incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood of older bungalow homes.

However, since the public hearing, Father J. Jon Bruno, rector of the combined parishes, may have tempered those feelings by sitting down with one opponent to discuss the possibility of design modifications.

Echo Park activist Karen Jaeger, who at first criticized the design, said this week that she is reconsidering after her meeting with Bruno.

Jaeger said she hoped that the church's architects might devise a more sensitive design. More important in her change of heart, Jaeger said, was her admiration for the church's community mission. The church houses programs for street youth and the elderly and, under Bruno's leadership, has associated itself with causes for the area's Latino poor and homosexuals.

"I think that in a real sense, Father Bruno and the parish are working to preserve what's important about the church," Jaeger said.

Bruno has said the project is essential to the survival of the twin parish, which has no money to maintain the old structure.

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