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Ceremony Marks a Vision of Hope for St. Vibiana's

Development: Both preservationists and city officials say buyer's plan will rehabilitate the old cathedral's legacy and surroundings.

November 03, 1999|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In front of St. Vibiana's Cathedral, its facade cracked and peeling and sprouting weeds, the scene these days is one of homelessness and neglect squatting just a few blocks below the glinting towers of Bunker Hill.

But Tuesday, at the 123-year-old building that once marked the city's expansion from a dusty old pueblo, dignitaries and activists came to celebrate a vision of downtown's future that recycles pieces of its past.

They praised an ambitious plan by developer Tom Gilmore to rehabilitate the abandoned church, as well as the adjacent school and rectory buildings, into a multiuse complex called Cathedral Place. The project would include a school, a boutique hotel and restaurant and an adjacent building with 150 apartments, all of that surrounding a new performing arts center in the church.

Gilmore recently signed a deal to buy the property for $4.6 million as part of his ongoing push to bring life and money back to an area that has fallen into decay. He said he expects the project to cost $40 million, and construction will not begin for at least 18 months at the site, which sits on 2nd and Main streets, just off skid row.

At Tuesday's ceremony, Mayor Richard Riordan likened Gilmore's project to Staples Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, lauding it as another magnet to draw people to downtown.

"With this project, Gilmore & Associates will safeguard the legacy of our beautiful cathedral, which has given us so much for so many years," Riordan said. "Cathedral Place will also provide a crucial link between Little Tokyo, the historic core and El Pueblo."

Riordan previously supported a plan by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to demolish St. Vibiana's and build a new cathedral on the site. After losing court battles with preservationists, the archdiocese found another location downtown, where it is now building the $163-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who did not attend Tuesday's conference because he was tending to an ailing family member, said he would seek state money to help bring the project to fruition but added that it was too soon to discuss specifics. He said a small but growing number of developers see opportunities in moribund downtown areas he represents.

"I really respect them because they've got moxie," said Cedillo. "They've got a vision and they're stepping up. . . . There's easier ways to make money than these visionary projects."

Gilmore is in discussions with Cal State Los Angeles to use church and class buildings as performance and teaching facilities, and is talking to another group about a charter school there.

He showed preliminary drawings of Cathedral Place to those gathered in the church parking lot. The designs featured a new pedestrian entrance to the complex, with the church-turned-performance center set in a courtyard and flanked by the school and hotel. Throughout the property would be gardens and cafes.

Though some say that Gilmore's projects are longshots, his purchase of the cathedral effectively ends a three-year feud between the archdiocese and preservationists, who saw different futures for the brick-and-limestone church. Officials of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which championed saving the church building, praised the project.

"Tom Gilmore is a rare breed," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the group. "He puts the revival of the urban core ahead of profit."

Msgr. Terrance Fleming, vicar general of the archdiocese, said it was no easy task to sell the church. "Many people came to look at the cathedral," he said. "But the only one with a checkbook was Tom Gilmore."

Gilmore also is working on a nearby $32-million project that will include 245 lofts in historic office structures on 4th Street, between Spring and Main streets.

Asked if his religion drove him to pick the St. Vibiana's property, Gilmore joked: "I'm an old Irish Catholic. But I'm not holding that against the church."

In a related matter, a Native American conservation group, which includes one of numerous Gabrielino tribal factions, said it had presented its argument in the 2nd District Court of Appeal against construction of the new cathedral between Temple Street and the Hollywood Freeway. The Spirit of the Sage Council said the building is illegal because it is on a known Indian burial ground and on land that is zoned for a public open space or government center.

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