Group Must Post Bond to Save Whittier Theater

Times Staff Writer

Last week's legal ruling that temporarily protects the earthquake-damaged Whittier Theater from demolition will be lifted Dec. 17 unless historic preservation activists can come up with a $10,000 bond.

Superior Court Judge Warren Deering on Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction to the Whittier Conservancy (formerly Save Our Historic Buildings) prohibiting demolition of the theater until property owner Peter Doerken prepares a legal justification for its destruction.

But because Doerken may suffer financial losses from the court-ordered delay, Deering ordered the conservancy to post the bond--money the group does not have, attorney David Dickerson said.

"If we don't make the bond, then the judge can dissolve the injunction and the building gets destroyed," Dickerson said. "Just like it's been a tough battle up to now, it will be a tough battle to come up with $10,000."

Prospects Uncertain

And even if the conservancy does get the money, restoration prospects for the theater remain uncertain.

City officials say the legal work to comply with the judge's order could take from a few weeks to several months. In the meantime, Whittier Conservancy President Michael Sullens said his group will look for a developer to take on the restoration project and raise money to support the effort.

"I'm not going to give up because I don't have a developer at this point," Sullens said. "Anything is possible."

Doerken Properties Inc. bought the theater for $1.1 million in June and planned to restore it as a regional performing arts center. The City Council supported this effort and tentatively arranged for a small Los Angeles County park to become part of the theater parcel.

But Doerken returned to the council in September and said further studies showed that the theater would be a losing proposition. Instead, he proposed leveling the theater to build a $14-million shopping plaza that would include the county land. But last month, county officials said they would not allow the park to be used for a strictly commercial project.

Emil Neshanian, property manager for Doerken, had no comment on Wednesday's decision or on development prospects for the theater site.

Hopes for Sale

However, Sullens said he hopes the combination of earthquake damage, the county's position and the delay caused by the court's decision will make Doerken more willing to sell the theater. And during that delay, Sullens wants the City Council to solicit requests for proposals to renovate the 1930s theater complex.

"I would hope the city would dissolve all contacts with Doerken," he said.

City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said he would not recommend soliciting restoration proposals because it would not be economically feasible to restore such a severely damaged building. Two of three structural engineers who have examined the theater said it is unsafe, and the third recommended further studies.

But interviews with City Council members indicate there may be some support for reconsidering restoration proposals.

Mayor Pro Tem Sabina Schwab, a consistent backer of theater restoration efforts, said she would vote for soliciting the proposals. Councilman Myron Claxton would not commit himself to voting for such a measure, but said, "I would hope there would be a way for other developers to come forth."

Councilman Thomas Sawyer said he would not object if city officials were to look for other developers, but noted that there has been little interest from developers in the past.

Claxton and Sawyer also questioned whether it would be economically possible to restore and maintain the theater without a city subsidy--a policy they both oppose. Attempts to reach Mayor Gene Chandler and Councilman Victor Lopez were unsuccessful, but the two have consistently opposed efforts to restore the theater.

Report This Month

The council will receive a report this month on the court ruling and will require Doerken to comply with one of three options required by the California Environmental Quality Act before a historic building can be destroyed:

An environmental impact report, an extensive analysis which would take at least two months.

A negative declaration that destroying the theater would not affect the environment. This requires that the city make a finding to that effect and post the conclusion for 30 days to solicit public comment.

A claim of exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act because of a public safety hazard caused by the earthquake. The claim could be made in a matter of days.

City officials must show compliance with the state law before the injunction can be lifted.

Another issue that has arisen since the earthquake is maintenance of the theater. Doerken fenced off the theater complex after it was declared unsafe, but the fence is down in some areas and children have been observed playing in the theater. Also, "Save Me" and "Save the Theater" have been written in black spray paint across some boarded up windows.

Mauk said the city has given Doerken written notice that he must maintain the theater complex. "As far as I see it, it's the property owner's responsibility," Mauk said.

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