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City Widens Warning on Cathedral

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles city inspectors heightened their seismic safety warnings about St. Vibiana’s Cathedral on Wednesday by blocking off the sidewalk and the parking lane in front as part of a wider red-tagging of the controversial downtown landmark.

City officials denied that they were reacting to political pressure, but preservationists--hoping to stave off the Roman Catholic cathedral’s demolition--questioned those actions.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan trio of state legislators announced Wednesday that they are introducing a bill that would assist Cardinal Roger Mahony’s plan to raze the 120-year-old cathedral and build a new archdiocese headquarters in its place. The church’s fate also was debated in Superior Court and at a meeting of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

Art Devine, executive officer for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, said Mayor Richard Riordan’s strong support for Mahony was not the reason inspectors gave a red tag to the entire cathedral late Tuesday, widening a safety warning that forbids entrance and previously applied only to its 83-foot-high bell tower.

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“We have not been talked to or pressured or have anything to do with the political end of it,” Devine said.

Officials of the Los Angeles Conservancy said they wonder whether the wider red-tagging is merited. The archdiocese is expected to use the red-tag status to bolster its case in seeking demolition permits for the cathedral at 2nd and Main streets.

Church officials contend that a magnitude 3.6 earthquake on May 23 dramatically worsened damage at the cathedral, which has been closed to the public for the past year. Armed with a city abatement order but without a permit, the archdiocese last Saturday began demolishing the tower until the conservancy won a temporary court order halting the work. Mahony on Monday said the legal opposition made it likely that he would build a new cathedral out of downtown or outside the city altogether.

“I think the political temblor was bigger than the geological temblor,” Barbara Hoff, the conservancy’s director of preservation issues, said Wednesday.

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Devine said that St. Vibiana’s bell tower could collapse soon, but that the attached cathedral is not such an immediate hazard. The tower’s more serious damage could make it easier to demolish without the environmental study or Cultural Heritage Commission review usually required for the demolition of a city landmark, he said. The city is willing to issue a demolition permit for the tower because that is “probably the best solution,” Devine suggested. He offered no opinion on whether the archdiocese should repair or demolish the cathedral, now a messy shell after church leaders recently removed all artifacts and most stained glass windows.

Conservancy attorney Jack H. Rubens, however, stressed that even imminent hazard is not enough to circumvent the reviews. Under state law, Rubens said, the archdiocese would have to prove that milder steps, such as bracing, would be ineffective in easing the danger.

That law would be changed under a proposal announced Wednesday by Assemblymen Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) and Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles.) They would exempt places of worship from state rules requiring careful review of disaster-damaged landmarks.

“Our bill will make it clear that the diocese has the ability to rebuild its house of worship as it sees fit,” Caldera said.

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In Los Angeles Superior Court, attorneys for the city and the archdiocese asked Judge Robert H. O’Brien to shorten his temporary restraining order against demolition and to hold a full hearing Friday, not June 17 as he ordered. The conservancy opposed such a schedule change. O’Brien’s decision is expected today.


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