Preservationists Won't Appeal Theater Ruling


The Whittier Conservancy has reluctantly surrendered in its lengthy battle to save the historic Whittier Theater.

Members of the preservation group, saying they did not have enough money to engage in another court battle, did not appeal a Superior Court judge's recent decision that allowed the city to issue a demolition permit for the movie house, which was built in 1929. The judge had set a deadline of 5 p.m. Monday for an appeal.

With the judge's ruling left unchallenged, the developer, Doerken Properties Inc. of Santa Monica, will be free to level the building after meeting several state and federal regulations, including the safe removal of asbestos in the auditorium ceiling, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said. City officials estimate that demolition could take place anywhere from 30 days to six months. Peter Doerken could not be reached for comment.

"We fought a good fight for the past two years," conservancy attorney David Dickerson said. "We didn't decide not to appeal. I believe we still had a good case, but the decision was made for us. Our resources were stretched and we can only do so much."

Conservancy member Tony Santana said the group had was unable to find a big law firm to take the case for free, and sought help from the more established Los Angeles Conservancy, which Santana called the last hope of Whittier preservationists.

But the Los Angeles organization decided not to step into the fray. Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which gave Whittier preservationists money to launch the fight to save the theater, said an appeal probably would not have succeeded.

"A loss in such a case could have set a precedent that would have had a negative impact on other historic buildings and the preservation movement," Rounds said.

"The legal argument can't force anyone to save a historic building. Ultimately you have to come up with someone willing to put money into rehabilitation and reuse of the place, and we haven't been able to find anyone."

Even if the conservancy had come up with a last-ditch effort to save the building, Whittier Conservancy member Santana said, the city never would have supported it. Santana and Rounds said that at least one developer had expressed an interest in buying the property from Doerken to restore the theater. But "given the extremely negative attitude of the city," the developer backed off, Rounds said.

City officials have not been coy about their desire to see the building razed. They said it was severely damaged in the October, 1987, earthquake and is unsafe. Although preservationists have said they believe it is the city's responsibility to attract developers and help them renovate the building, city officials say they cannot afford to subsidize renovation.

Shortly after the quake, the city issued a permit to demolish the building. Preservationists obtained a temporary restraining order that stopped demolition as it was under way, then filed suit charging that the city had failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires an environmental study before a historic building is torn down. A judge ordered the city to prepare an environmental report, and the theater had been in legal limbo since then. A judge approved the report Feb. 26.

The theater sits at the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street near McNees Park. For nearly 2 1/2 years, since the conservancy and the city became locked in a dispute, the theater has sat untouched. Its marquee lies in a heap at the front entrance and the building's sides are caved in. Chunks of mortar litter the area.

Area businessmen, most of whom remember going to movies there as children, say they will be glad when the site is cleaned up because it has been bad for business. A newer shopping plaza might draw more customers to the area, they say.

City officials say they are glad to see the issue resolved. Although they say they do not know what will be built on the site, they say that with the exception of a small commercial strip shopping center, anything would be better than the sight of the crumbling theater.

"It's high time we do something with that area," Mayor Victor Lopez said. "All the reports said the building was not reparable, and even if it was, when it was sold (to Doerken) the condition was that it would not be used as a theater. This fight was all tied up in mumbo jumbo, and the conservancy wasted two years that could have been spent developing that land."

City Manager Mauk agreed.

"For some reason sanity has finally prevailed," Mauk said. "For two years, the theater has been a major blight at a major entrance to our city. It was a terrific eyesore and finally it's time to clean it up."

Even the staunchest defenders of the theater--known in its heyday for a planetarium ceiling that created the effect of swirling clouds and a starry night--acknowledge that it has been an eyesore. But they say the eyesore was created by city bulldozers. The earthquake caused minimal damage, they argued.

The theater had become a symbol of the need for a city government that is well-versed in environmental law, said Michael Sullens, president of the Whittier Conservancy.

"I don't feel we have lost," Sullens said. "We have raised the consciousness level tenfold, especially among city staff and the City Council. Now they realize they have to follow the law. Basically that's what this fight was all about."


Before the Whittier Theater can be leveled, property owner Peter Doerken must comply with state and federal regulations, including removing asbestos safely from the auditorium ceiling. The South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Environmental Protection Agency must be notified about the asbestos removal plan, Whittier Planning Director Elvin Porter said. He said Doerken Properties Inc. also must photograph and prepare architectural drawings of the theater to be placed in an archive, and must attempt to save all pieces of unique architecture. Those pieces, such as the tower or parts of the facade, would be for sale.

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