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Pasadena Council Approves Gutting Raymond Theatre

Project: The owners plan apartments and shops but vow to restore building's facade.


The curtain may have finally fallen on Old Pasadena's historic Raymond Theatre, as the Pasadena City Council approved a plan Monday to gut the landmark to make way for apartments, shops and offices.

Despite pleas from preservationists, the council voted 6 to 2 to allow the controversial project.

"Empty buildings aren't very attractive," said Councilman Steve Haderlein, who voted for the conversion.

For more than 15 years, the future of the Raymond Theatre has been debated. One councilman compared the 80-year-old landmark to a family pet that has suffered the ravages of age but that no one is willing to put out of its misery.

At a public hearing last month, dozens of people protested the plan to convert the theater at 129 N. Raymond Ave., saying it would effectively "demolish" the theater that had showcased vaudeville, pornographic movies and rock 'n' roll before sitting empty much of the last decade. The Los Angeles Conservancy called the project a "facade-omy"--a term akin to lobotomy--in which the insides would be removed and only the shell would remain.

But Councilman Steve Madison said the city has been assured that the owners will restore the facade and maintain much of the building's decorative fittings.

The owners, Gene and Marilyn Buchanan, wanted council approval to build 62 apartments in the parking lot and in the 90-foot-high stage house. They would put offices in the balcony area and create retail stores in the main space, while restoring the Beaux Arts facade of the 1,800-seat theater.

"We finally got approval to move ahead with the project," Gene Buchanan said after the vote.

Led by Councilwoman Joyce Streator, the council included a requirement that at least four of the housing units, or 6%, be affordable and perhaps more if staff can negotiate it.

"I don't think it does us any good to have a vacant dilapidated building sitting there with a small parking lot," Streator said. "But in all good conscience, we've got to include affordable housing."

Councilman Victor Gordo, who with Councilman Paul Little dissented, said that was not enough affordable housing. A recently passed ordinance requires projects to include 15% affordable housing.

Buchanan said he does not know how the affordable housing will affect the project's economics. He does know, he said, that the theater was never an economically viable option.

Last year, attorney Pierce O'Donnell and entrepreneur Harvey Knell failed in an effort to acquire the theater and preserve it. After agreeing to buy it, the pair could not secure financing or a developer for an adjacent apartment structure that they hoped would help fund the $3.5-million purchase of the theater as a performing arts center.

That failure weighed heavily on the council's decision Monday. Another developer Monday, Urban Development Resources Corp., said it was interested, but did not make a firm offer.

Monday's decision may still be challenged in court by Pasadena Heritage, a powerful local preservation group.

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