For Church Design, Future Is in Doubt : Architecture: Supporters call it visionary. But detractors say the ultramodern plans for St. Lorenzo's new sanctuary don't fit in the community.


Critics say it resembles a spaceship. Others simply dismiss it as too modern. Supporters counter that it's a visionary marvel. And its architect boasts that it will attract admirers from around the nation.

No one would dispute, however, that St. Lorenzo Catholic Church is testing the limits of Walnut's architectural standards by proposing a decidedly unconventional design for a $5 million church complex in one of the city's poshest neighborhoods.

With an abundance of swooping curves--and a dearth of the more traditional right angles--the architectural design of the two-tiered main sanctuary, with a seating capacity of 1,200, and the attached church offices and assembly hall--totaling 96,000 square feet--has sparked a vigorous debate in the usually sedate bedroom community of 30,000 residents.

"It looks like a spaceship ready to take off," said Walnut resident Keith Walton, whose home sits on a hillside bluff above the site. Walton also owns an equestrian center located across the street from the church's property. "This church in no way, shape or form fits the fabric of the city. It's way out in left field."

And other detractors of the church design are echoing his sentiments.

"It's just too ultramodern for Walnut," said June Wentworth, chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She said the design clearly is not compatible with Walnut's general plan, the long-range guide for the city's development, which calls for a "rural or rustic" architectural style.

Wentworth added that her concern is heightened by the location. The church's 14.4-acre lot, on the northeast corner of Lemon Avenue and Meadow Pass Road, is ringed by imposing million-dollar homes, many still under construction, and a stately tree-lined equestrian center.

Extra care is warranted regarding the church's design, Wentworth said, because it will become part of one of the city's "showcase" vistas.

'We're not trying to deface the city; we're trying to build a church," said Father Dennis Vellucci, pastor of St. Lorenzo Catholic Church.

Vellucci, who came to the church in late 1990 when it was known as the Walnut Catholic Mission, said the parish's 4,000 members have outgrown their current facilities. "Many more Catholics in Walnut would join the church except that it's too small," he said.

Vellucci estimates that it will take at least five years to build the new complex, and he's unwilling to abandon the proposal because several months and several thousand dollars were invested in its conception.

"We're not trying to ram anything down anybody's throat, but I don't want to spend $25,000 on each new design," he said. "We conceivably could go through 10 plans and get turned down."

Sunday Masses currently are held in a leased warehouse on Valley Boulevard that seats about 300 people. The overflow from the congregation, which often numbers about 150, must view the services on a large television monitor in the parking lot.

Although he concedes the proposed church's design is "modern," Vellucci said the standard mission style of architecture was unsuitable in this case. "You're not talking about a little 'church in a pail' when you're talking about seating 1,200 people," he said. "It's possibly the largest building that will ever be built in Walnut."

Vellucci unveiled the plans, which were already approved by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, for the site last month at a study session with the Planning Commission. To his surprise, the commission told him that the design was incompatible with the rural nature of the city. By consensus, the commission suggested he scrub his plans and go back to the drawing board.

"We got crucified," Vellucci said. He complained that many commercial buildings in Walnut and several houses near the site are not rural in architecture and therefore the commission is inconsistent in its rulings.

"In reality, the general plan has not been followed," he said. "We're trying to get a definition of 'rural.' Before we go back to the drawing board, we want to know what the parameters are."

James Darling, the Newport Beach-based architect of the planned church, said he was flabbergasted by the Planning Commission's response.

"Considering the buildings that are in Walnut, I was incredibly surprised," Darling said. "There's not one building in Walnut that I consider even architecture. If they built this church in Walnut, people from around the nation would come to look at it."

However, Councilman Drexel L. Smith said he's fielded opinions to the contrary. "I've heard considerable concern about this architect's vision of what the church should look like," he said. "And I share a concern about this particular design in this particular neighborhood."

Smith said he was approached by six St. Lorenzo parishioners who are opposed to the design. "There are members of the church who expressed to me privately that they do not care for the architectural design of the church," Smith said. Since then, after soliciting comments, he has heard from both detractors and supporters.

The church does have at least one strong ally on the City Council. Councilman William Choctaw argued that churches should be allowed to design and build their facilities without any interference from regulating agencies.

"It's the ultimate in arrogance when a governmental body tries to dictate to a church . . . what it should look like," Choctaw said. "Just because someone doesn't like the way it looks doesn't mean it should be changed."

At last week's council meeting, Choctaw was appointed to a church subcommittee that includes Vellucci, Darling and two planning commissioners in an attempt to find a solution to the apparent impasse between the church and the city.

"I'm very confident that some kind of compromise can be worked out," Choctaw said.

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