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FAITH AND PRESERVATION IN L.A.

New Cathedral Won't Be on St. Vibiana's Site

July 23, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Roman Catholic archdiocese will "absolutely not" build a replacement on the site of the current St. Vibiana's Cathedral and instead will construct a grand church elsewhere in downtown Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony announced Monday.

"It is my overwhelming preference and that of my advisors that we try to remain in the greater Civic Center area of Los Angeles. It is the traditional location for the cathedral church, and we are hopeful that we will be able to fulfill this desire," Mahony told a news conference in the parking lot of the old cathedral, which he said he still wants to demolish quickly.

Although declining to identify actual sites, Mahony said he expects a tentative purchase agreement soon for property "just west of downtown" that "will give the new cathedral a marvelous vista point over the city." Knowledgeable sources identify that site as next to the former Union Oil headquarters between 4th and 6th streets, immediately west of the Harbor Freeway.

The archdiocese will continue talks about buying several state- and county-owned properties in the Civic Center area much closer to the current, earthquake-damaged church. Those include the California Department of Transportation parking lot between Main, Los Angeles, 1st and 2nd streets, just to the north of St. Vibiana's, and two county parking areas close to the Music Center, according to city officials.

The announcement gave some measure of relief to Los Angeles city leaders who see the cathedral project as a crucial boost for downtown. Earlier in the debate over St. Vibiana's, Mahony had threatened to move the cathedral project out of downtown and perhaps out of the city.

The site will be chosen in two or three months, but the archdiocese will start to demolish St. Vibiana's on Friday if a Superior Court judge at a hearing scheduled for Thursday lifts a temporary ban, church attorneys said. The archdiocese wants to sell the land.

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Leaders of the Los Angeles Conservancy said they would continue to challenge quick razing in hopes that someone will buy and repair the 120-year-old, Spanish Baroque-style church for another use.

The cardinal said his decision to leave the site at 2nd and Main streets was prompted by continuing legal fights with preservationists and the high price of other land on the same block needed for the project. More delays, he said, would shatter his dream of dedicating a new $50-million cathedral in 2000.

The owners of one of those adjacent properties to the south was asking more than double the land's fair value, which would add $1.5 million to the project's costs, Mahony said. Those owners could not be reached for comment Monday.

Even if the archdiocese wins the battle over St. Vibiana's in Superior Court, and in a related suit in the state Court of Appeal, Mahony said the project would still move. The new cathedral will "absolutely not be on this property."

"There are no circumstances under which that would happen," he said. 'That's past history."

He also discounted speculation that the cathedral would be built in the San Fernando Valley, at the former Alemany High School.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said Monday that she was pleased the project will stay downtown, but she said her organization should not be blamed for the shift off the current site.

"It's been their decision not to follow the [legal] process," she said of the archdiocese's contention that demolition did not require a thorough environmental impact study. Dishman added that she thought the conservancy had been made a scapegoat for Mahony's inability to purchase adjacent land.

Although she said she did not know of a potential buyer who might want to save St. Vibiana's, Dishman said Mahony's announcement might spur such interest. "We will be working very aggressively to find a future for that building," she said.

The conservancy had sought an environmental study to determine whether the old church could be incorporated into a new cathedral complex, possibly as an auxiliary meeting hall. In its latest lawsuit, the organization says that such a report is required for the City Council's 14-1 vote last week to strip landmark status from the cathedral. A demolition permit was issued two hours after that vote. Continued landmark status could have delayed such a permit for a year but not ban it.

City Council member Rita Walters, whose district includes the current cathedral and many of the alternative sites, said the original location was the best for downtown revitalization. But she added that she was 'really pleased and delighted that the cardinal is looking in the general area of downtown."

Likewise, a spokeswoman for Mayor Richard Riordan expressed mixed emotions. "The good news is that the new facility will be in the downtown area, though the priority was to have the facility at the original site of St. Vibiana's," said Noelia Rodriguez.

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