Council Applauds Developer's Script To Save Theater

Times Staff Writer

The City Council has raised the curtain on an ambitious plan to create an entertainment emporium around the aging Whittier Theater, a landmark that once was the neon heartbeat of the city but is now boarded up.

Council members voted 5 to 0 on Tuesday night to give a Santa Monica-based developer, Doerkin Properties Inc., 90 days to draw up specific plans for the restoration of the 1,000-seat movie house and the development of a series of restaurants, boutiques and specialty shops at Hadley Avenue and Whittier Boulevard. The project would cover roughly 80,000 square feet, and city officials predict that it would eventually generate almost $270,000 a year in sales and property tax revenues.

Spanish-Style Motif

Developer Peter Doerkin said the theater's Spanish-style motif--red-tile roofs, adobe archways and shady courtyards with pools and fountains--would be extended throughout the project. Ground breaking, he said, could come as early as summer.

But that timetable is contingent on Doerkin's acquiring the theater property, several nearby businesses and a tiny park in unincorporated county territory behind the theater.

While the theater and surrounding shops are the nucleus of the project, Doerkin wants to expand the existing development to add 56,000 square feet of retail space behind the theater as well as a three-story parking structure for 750 vehicles. That means the park would be torn out and several streets closed, including Prather Avenue and a stretch of Gretna Avenue between Hadley Street and See Drive.

The demise of the theater and the shops around it has long been a sore spot for the city, particularly in light of the property's prime location. The theater's six-story tower can be seen for miles, and visitors entering the city from the west on Whittier Boulevard pass the theater en route to Uptown Whittier, the central business district.

Council Clearly Excited

Council members were clearly excited about Doerkin's proposal to recapture some of the Whittier Theater's earlier glory.

"On paper, it is a tremendously ambitious plan," Mayor Gene Chandler said. ". . . It will be a major plus for this city, if you can pull it off."

The hook, Doerkin said, will be the theater, one of only a dozen movie houses left in Southern California built before the Depression. It is owned by Pacific Theaters, the Los Angeles-based chain that decided to sell the Whittier walk-in because of slumping business at the box office. The theater went on the market last fall, and Pacific even considered tearing it down to attract commercial developers.

In November, the council protected the landmark from demolition for six months by placing it on a list of historic buildings, about the same time Doerkin first learned of the theater from Tom Paradiso, a West Los Angeles resident who is a fan of old movie houses. Doerkin said Paradiso convinced him the movie house could be converted into a performing arts theater for drama, pop concerts and comedy shows.

Doerkin said he has received an option from Pacific to buy the theater, but a final purchase agreement has not been reached. Pacific is reportedly asking more than $1 million for the property, although Doerkin would not discuss specifics of the deal. If he acquires the theater, Doerkin said it will undergo a major renovation, including new carpeting, drapes, paint and light fixtures. Extensive repairs also will be necessary to the stage, roof, plumbing and electrical wiring.

Doerkin, who said he has already invested $100,000 in the project, told the council that Paradiso would manage the theater.

Meandering Courtyard

Surrounding the theater, Doerkin envisions shops and restaurants where people can come to browse or eat and dance. A meandering courtyard with benches and fountains, he said, would connect the entire shopping complex.

City officials say that in the past, the lack of parking has been a stumbling block to upgrading or changing the use of the property. Doerkin said the proposed parking structure would solve that problem. But he must acquire the park as well as a small strip of businesses behind the theater on Gretna to make room for the structure.

Susan Moeller, a member of Whittier's redevelopment staff, said county officials have agreed to sell the park to the city, which in turn would sell it to Doerkin. The park, Moeller said, is too small to be of much recreational value and county officials have long considered it a nuisance to maintain.

As for the commercial building on Gretna, which houses several small businesses, Doerkin said, "I am confident we will obtain that parcel."

According to a city report, Doerkin has been in the development business since 1971, and is building a $52-million mixed-use commercial and residential project on the bay in San Diego.

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