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Battle Over Cathedral’s Fate Intensifies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a Superior Court judge temporarily banned demolition of the bell tower of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral on Monday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony sharply escalated warnings that he is looking to move a planned new cathedral out of downtown and perhaps outside Los Angeles altogether.

“Our preference is to remain in the historic core of Los Angeles, but the inability to clear this site for the new cathedral and the prospect of endless legal challenges and lawsuits over the coming months and years by the conservationists, now make this downtown location virtually impossible,” Mahony told a news conference at the 120-year-old, earthquake-damaged church at 2nd and Main streets.

For the first time in months, Mahony flatly stated that he wants the entire old church, not just the tower, razed by summer’s end so construction can start next year on a new spiritual headquarters for the nation’s most populous Roman Catholic archdiocese.

Preservationists from the Los Angeles Conservancy want at least portions of the old cathedral incorporated in a new complex, and in legal papers filed Monday sought to block demolition while the issues are reviewed less hastily. Mahony harshly attacked the conservancy, accusing its leaders of trampling religious freedoms.

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Over the past few weeks, the fate of St. Vibiana’s has grown into a complicated matter involving politics, landmark laws and architectural tastes. Mahony first warned two weeks ago that he might leave the downtown site partly because of the high prices for adjacent land.

Asked whether he was trying to exert political pressure with his new statements Monday, Mahony smiled and replied: “I exert pressure?”

But he clearly had some Los Angeles officials nearly jumping out of their skins by mentioning the possibility of a new cathedral in the San Gabriel Valley, Burbank, Glendale or parts of the San Fernando Valley within Los Angeles city limits. The archdiocese includes all of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the 5,000-member Los Angeles Conservancy, said Monday that Mahony was attempting unfairly to deflect attention away from what she said was illegal demolition of a city-protected landmark.

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“This is a secular city and there are laws that everyone in this community has to follow. This is about respect for the law,” Dishman said.

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Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien on Monday extended a temporary restraining order for two weeks against the possible issuance of a city demolition permit for the 83-foot-high bell tower. The judge scheduled a June 17 hearing on the conservancy’s contention that an environmental impact study should be required.

Archdiocese attorney John McNicholas said he would ask for a hearing sooner, perhaps Friday, and pledged to appeal any subsequent ruling against demolition.

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Last Friday, an archdiocese engineer told the city that the tower’s previous earthquake damage was dramatically worsened by the 3.6 temblor May 23, even though no other major damage was reported downtown. After inspecting the tower, the city’s Building and Safety Department ordered the archdiocese to abate the problem within 72 hours and church leaders began demolition Saturday. But another city inspector summoned by the conservancy halted the work because of the lack of a proper permit. By then, the crowning tower and cupola had been pulled off by huge cranes.

While archdiocese officials contend that they were never told of the need for a permit, conservancy attorney Jack H. Rubens on Monday submitted a transcript of a message on his answering machine early Saturday in which a city inspector confirmed that he told church leaders a permit was needed.

Deputy City Atty. Keith Pritsker said Monday that the city would support the quick permit issuance. The imminent danger is so extreme, he said, that environmental review should be waived.

O’Brien appeared a bit skeptical about reported damage in the May 23 quake, which he said “wasn’t a very big one.” He asked the conservancy attorney whether the city might be using that quake as a pretext.

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“Far from us to be so cynical, your honor,” replied Rubens, obviously pleased.

Dishman said her nonprofit organization, founded in 1978, is prepared for political heat.

“If we have to deal with political pressure, we have to deal with it,” she said. “If we don’t speak up, what is our use as historic preservationists?”

Los Angeles landmark rules do not ban demolition. But the law can delay razing by a year for study and a search for new owners.

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Wearing a hard hat, Mahony spoke inside the dusty shambles of the main sanctuary, where the archdiocese recently removed statues, pews, altar parts and the 14 large stained glass windows of biblical scenes. The church has been closed for a year.

If a new cathedral is built elsewhere, the old church will become one more empty and deteriorating eyesore downtown, the cardinal warned. “No one will ever be allowed inside again, and it will stand as a shameful testament to a small group of obstructionists in the city of Los Angeles,” he said. Mahony has appointed a 10-member committee for site selection and expects their report June 25.

Such comments touched on the worst fears of downtown leaders.

Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, said opposition is “going to ruin the opportunity to have an extraordinary catalytic project, which can result in an architectural masterpiece on the site, linked to all other parts of downtown.”

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Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represents downtown, was so supportive of the cardinal that she attended the morning court hearing. Walters denied speculation that City Hall leaders pushed the demolition to please the cardinal. But she said she wanted “to see everything done to facilitate” a new cathedral at the original location as a spur to downtown revival.

Council members John Ferraro and Richard Alatorre said it would be a tragedy if the archdiocese abandons downtown. “If it moves, it’s the death of downtown Los Angeles,” Alatorre said.

Mayor Richard Riordan, who is close to the cardinal, came down squarely on Mahony’s side Monday.

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“Unfortunately, a few conservationists threaten to trample the incredible effort of the archdiocese to build . . . a centerpiece for revitalization of the historic core of the city,” the mayor said in a prepared statement.

After a lengthy competition, an architect is expected to be announced next week for cathedral design, with informed sources saying that the cardinal has chosen Jose Rafael Moneo of Spain.

About a dozen preservationists and parishioners demonstrated Monday morning outside the church they hope to save.

“Los Angeles has so few historical landmarks left,” said Gail Kristen, a musician who used to sing in the St. Vibiana choir. “Everyone is so concerned about rebuilding L.A. Well, it’s good to have a strong foundation from which to build.”

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Times staff writer Tina Daunt contributed to this report.

* THE SPIN

Cardinal Roger Mahony holds the cards in cathedral fight. B1


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