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Downtown Revitalization May Hang on New Cathedral

Last weekend’s theatrics aside, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles should be able to build the cathedral it wants, consistent with local building requirements. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the private donors who have contributed $35 million toward that end clearly do not want to renovate St. Vibiana’s, which is heavily damaged and unsafe; they want a new cathedral. They should have it.

The scene at St. Vibiana’s on Saturday generated about as much drama as is possible in Los Angeles’ deserted core on a weekend. Huge cranes pulled the crowning cross and cupola from the bell tower in the morning. Afterward, church officials said they acted in response to a city order; that order, issued late Friday afternoon, called on the archdiocese to “abate” the imminent danger posed to public safety by the earthquake-damaged tower. But by midday, outraged preservationists who would prefer to see the existing structure renovated, not razed, had summoned a city building inspector, who in turn ordered the work halted for lack of a permit. By late afternoon, conservationists had obtained an oral temporary restraining order, halting further demolition.

On Monday, a Superior Court judge extended the order for two weeks, pending a hearing on the contention by the Los Angeles Conservancy that an environmental impact statement should be required before the archdiocese is allowed to proceed with demolition of the 120-year-old church.

Cardinal Mahony was sufficiently provoked by the weekend’s events to call a press conference Monday to renew his threat to padlock the crumbling property and move the diocesan headquarters out of the downtown area.

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This fight has become nasty and sadly typical of earlier development battles in Los Angeles, where, unlike in some other cities, conservationists and urban-core developers are usually on opposite sides.

Mayor Richard Riordan and Councilwoman Rita Walters, in whose district the cathedral sits, want the archdiocese to stay downtown. They understand that the price of staying means church officials must win approval to raze the existing building and build a new cathedral. (Church officials have already removed historic stained glass windows, altars and statuary that would be reinstalled in the new complex.)

More fundamentally, these and other officials understand that if Mahony does in fact walk away from the property at 2nd and Main streets, as he threatens to do, there will be little new development left to energize a downtown revitalization. Similarly, if Mahony faces years of litigation before he can move ahead with his plans, there is little reason for him to continue to pursue a downtown site for a new cathedral.

Yet for all their political acumen, city leaders bungled badly, raising the stakes--and the ill will--in this fight between the church and the conservancy. When the city ordered the church to abate the new hazard posed by the 83-foot-high tower after last month’s 3.6 earthquake, why weren’t conservancy members informed? Even more to the point, why weren’t all city inspectors informed? Where was the communication, official and political?

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The Los Angeles Conservancy has a distinguished record of accomplishments. Its efforts were key to saving from the wrecking ball the former Bullock’s store on Wilshire, with its magnificent Art-Deco design, along with the historic Dunbar Hotel in South-Central and the Mayan Theatre downtown. But in the case of St. Vibiana’s, the choice is now between the spread of urban decay, which is all that can come from an abandoned cathedral, or some chance for revitalization with a new one. The stakes in this dispute have moved well beyond the preservation of a single building.


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