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Downtown Hillside Site Selected for Cathedral

Church: Catholic archdiocese hopes to buy 5 1/2 acres, now used as parking lot, from county within 6 months.

September 18, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now, it is an ugly, 1,100-space parking lot next to the Hollywood Freeway and a steam-belching heating plant. But in four years, the hillside property could be the home of a towering new flagship church for the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, visible from East Los Angeles to Hollywood and including "a wonderfully landscaped plaza" for worshipers, downtown office workers and tourists.

The proposed transformation of the county-owned Lot 20 into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was announced Tuesday by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony as he formally began the task of acquiring the sloping 5.53-acre parcel across Temple Street from the county Hall of Administration. Church and county officials expressed confidence that the sale can be completed within six months and said architectural design work will begin immediately.

However, money remains at issue. The county is asking $10.85 million for the property, based on a recent appraisal. Archdiocese advisors contend that the land is worth $6 million to $7 million.

"There will be obstacles and hurdles along the way that we will have to jump over and around," Mahony said at a press conference Tuesday at the chosen site. "But we do hope to make it work."

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mike Antonovich agreed, pledging "to make this dream come true." He and Supervisor Gloria Molina, who first proposed the site, said the archdiocese would be treated like any other private bidder in an auction for surplus property--although no other bidder is anticipated.

Tuesday's announcement is the latest step in the ongoing controversy over Mahony's efforts to replace the 120-year-old St. Vibiana's Cathedral, located downtown next to skid row.

While the new cathedral's architect, Jose Rafael Moneo, reportedly rejected some other replacement sites last weekend as being too much in the shadow of Los Angeles City Hall, some urban planners wanted the church built closer to the Civic Center core.

"It sort of makes me sad actually," said Lauren Melendrez, the landscape architect who recently led a study about improving the Civic Center. "It takes the cathedral to an area that is not very accessible to pedestrians."

Melendrez said, however, that the new site was much less isolated than another possible church location, the former Union Oil headquarters just west of the Harbor Freeway.

The cardinal stressed that the county lot's 30-foot rise in elevation from Hill Street to Grand Avenue and its unusually large size are major enticements and will influence design of the new $50-million headquarters of the nation's most populous archdiocese. The slope provides dramatic visibility and allows for parking underneath a large plaza, meeting halls and a rectory building.

Mahony also pointed out that the lot is half a block from a Red Line subway station and a five-minute walk from City Hall, and has easy freeway access.

The possible speed of acquisition and construction also made Lot 20 more desirable than five other downtown sites the archdiocese investigated, Mahony and his consultants explained.

The county is the sole owner of the entire block, thus simplifying negotiations. And the county has reacted to archdiocese interest more quickly than the California Department of Transportation has regarding a parking lot the state agency owns near City Hall.

What's more, no demolition would be required on the county lot, except for some wooden shacks. Gesturing toward them Tuesday, Mahony joked: "I hope those parking kiosks are not historical structures."

A soil study will be required because the land contains old fill from the freeway construction.

Since June, the archdiocese has lost a series of court battles with preservationists over its original plan to demolish the current cathedral at 2nd and Main streets and build a replacement there. After abandoning that plan in July and putting the quake-damaged property up for sale, Mahony said he wants no more delays toward his goal of dedicating a new cathedral on the feast day--Sept. 4--of Our Lady of the Angels in 2000.

Mahony on Tuesday reiterated his intent to sell the historic St. Vibiana's to anyone who wants to restore it for a dignified purpose such as a museum. He added that he will demolish it if no decent offer materializes.

So far, Mahony said, the only offer has come from a man he refused to identify who reportedly mailed him a $100 check. The cardinal, while not specifying a price, said that offer was several million dollars short and returned the check.

Critics have complained that Mahony has used threats about leaving downtown in order to get his way. On Tuesday, Mahony warned that if problems arise on the county land, the project would move to the site of the former Pater Noster High School, now leased by the Ribet Academy, near the Glendale Freeway in the Glassell Park neighborhood, or to the north at the San Fernando Mission complex. The archdiocese owns both sites.

"We will not consider any further downtown locations," Mahony said.

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