Structural engineer Nabih Youssef has had difficult and politically sensitive assignments before, including seismic retrofitting of City Hall and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. His latest task, though, may be the earthshaker.
Soon he will be center stage in one of the most contentious architectural preservation squabbles in city history--the dispute over the plan to demolish St. Vibiana's Cathedral.
Youssef and associates at his Wilshire Boulevard office are finishing a comprehensive seismic safety study of the Downtown cathedral, headquarters of the nation's most populous Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's controversial proposal to replace the 119-year-old structure with a new cathedral will rely heavily on the report's findings about whether the earthquake-damaged church can be repaired, and the cost of bringing it up to current codes.
"It is a hot potato, definitely," Youssef acknowledged. "We are aware of that."
Speaking from his office recently, he declined to discuss any findings so far.
Youssef was hired by the Roman Catholic archdiocese, whose officials insist they want an unbiased study. Youssef's national reputation is such that even the cardinal's strongest opponents on the St. Vibiana issue say they are certain that the engineer would not bend his findings to please the cardinal.
"It's good news that Nabih Youssef is doing the report. He is competent, very sophisticated and works hard, especially on earthquake-damaged historic buildings. I know him to be intellectually honest and for doing the right thing as much as possible," said William Delvac, the attorney co-chairing a new coalition of groups opposing St. Vibiana's demolition.
Delvac, a principal in the Historic Resources Group, said he is confident that the report will declare St. Vibiana's repairable, although perhaps at a cost the archdiocese may consider too high. "Then we'll know if money is the issue, or site planning is. But we'll know the real reason can't be the earthquake," he added.
Archdiocese officials said the Youssef report was commissioned partly in response to protests against Cardinal Mahony's announcement in January that a new $45-million cathedral would replace St. Vibiana's on the same site.
Besides stressing that the cathedral is too small and would need too much seismic upgrading, the cardinal revealed that major donors demanded a new building. Preservationists hope the archdiocese will consider keeping the building as part of a new cathedral complex on adjacent property owned by the archdiocese.
Because the church is a Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark, razing it would require environmental impact study and special city review. Mayor Richard Riordan, a friend of the cardinal, supports the demolition plan.
A source close to the archdiocese, who asked not to be identified, explained: "If we don't do the analysis, the conservancy will crucify us, pardon the metaphor."
Although its 83-foot-high bell tower and sanctuary ceiling showed cracks after the Northridge temblor, the cathedral remained in use until seven weeks ago, when Cardinal Mahony ordered the cathedral closed after an alarming, preliminary report by the Peck/Jones Construction Corp. warning that another aftershock might topple the bell tower into the sanctuary. "There are a lot of possibilities between not touching a hair on the head of the existing building and demolition of St. Vibiana's," explained Robert Harris, a USC architecture professor who co-chairs the coalition to save the church with Delvac. Harris is also a vice president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the preservationist group that has been urging the cardinal to reconsider.
Mahony has requested a California mission-style cathedral that would double the current 1,200-seating capacity, include an 800-seat conference centerunderground parking. Stained glass windows and other artifacts from the old church would be included, he said. Such a complex, boosters stress, would improve a neighborhood where homelessness and drugs scare off potential visitors.
St. Vibiana's was completed in January, 1876, when Los Angeles was a town of about 9,000 residents. The church was named after and contains the relics of a 3rd Century martyr, whose remains were unearthed in Italy in 1853 and brought to Los Angeles.