Parking Ordinance Blocks Renovation Plan at Bell Theater
Arman Akarakian’s plan to remodel the Liberty Theater building, which was severely damaged in the Oct. 1 earthquake and ordered evacuated, has stalled for the moment.
More than half of the building’s ceilings and walls were veined with cracks. Twenty tons of brick were shaken off its west wall and toppled onto an adjacent apartment building.
Akarakian’s proposal to repair the 63-year-old building is blocked by a Bell ordinance that requires a property owner to conform with parking standards when the cost of repairs exceeds half a structure’s assessed value.
Variance Request Denied
The Liberty Theater’s assessed value is $52,000. But Akarakian’s plan calls for an estimated $350,000 in remodeling that would turn the two-story building into a single-story theater with nine new retail spaces where the 21-unit Liberty Apartments now stand vacant. Last week, the City Council voted to deny Akarakian’s request to waive the parking ordinance’s requirements, citing the priority of needed spaces.
Now Bell’s only movie house, the former Alcazar Theater at Gage and Clarkson avenues, is facing demolition.
“The council reviewed the application, reviewed the site and did not find the basis for granting of the variance,” Building Inspector Donald J. Knechtel said. “The granting of the variance cannot constitute a special privilege and that is why we recommended denial.”
The council also denied the variance request of Khanh and Thu Mai, who own the Discount Furniture Store at the corner of Atlantic and Gage avenues, and that two-story, unreinforced brick structure also faces demolition.
Akarakian’s plan for the Liberty Theater calls for 22 parking spaces, while the city ordinance requires 56 on-site spaces. Mai’s furniture store, under the same provisions, also would have to provide 56 spaces where there are now only 15.
The City Council’s denials served notice to the eight other Gage Avenue businesses hit hardest by the quake that if they choose to rebuild, they too will have to comply with off-street parking requirements. Knechtel said several others probably will apply for variances, but he won’t be sure how many of them are in the same predicament as Akarakian until he receives rebuilding cost estimates and compares them to assessed values.
“Anytime you have a commercial development on a street like Atlantic, you need adequate parking, or people will go elsewhere,” Councilman George Mirabal said. “Parking and commerce go together.”
Almost all the pre-1933, unreinforced masonry buildings damaged in the quake are located on a half-mile stretch of Gage Avenue, formerly Baker Avenue, one of the city’s oldest streets. Two buildings already have been demolished and a third is scheduled to be brought down, Knechtel said.
“To a certain degree, it’s tragic,” Mirabal said. “The theater had some beautiful facade work. We’re hoping to get the proper rebuilding of the city, but people have to understand that the rules were changed a couple of years ago, and these people have been living on borrowed time.”
The Planning Department’s recommendation to the council said the city should not make exceptions to the ordinance and the city’s general plan calls for the creation of adequate parking spaces. Council members instructed Knechtel to meet with affected property owners to discuss options to demolition, such as establishing a benefit assessment district that could provide parking off-site for several business.
No Demolition Plans
Attorney Lisa Malmsten, who represented Akarakian and Mai before the council last week, said her clients have no immediate plans to demolish, and will wait until they have met again with city officials to decide.
“There’s no way for (Akarakian) to meet the parking requirement short of making a multistory parking structure,” Malmsten said. “If you’re building Beverly Center, you can accommodate the parking spots.”
Akarakian and Mai declined to comment on the progress of their proposals on the advice of Malmsten.