Preservationists say a state commission's decision to designate an Azusa drive-in movie theater as a historic landmark will make it much harder for Azusa Pacific University to demolish the county's last single-screen outdoor theater.
The Azusa Foothill Drive-In Theatre appeared to be doomed when the Christian university paid $6.1 million for the property last year to house new campus facilities.
But preservationists on Friday convinced the state Historical Resources Commission to designate the last drive-in on Route 66 west of Oklahoma a state landmark.
"This makes it a lot harder to knock it down," said Trudi Sandmeier, an advocate for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group that nominated the drive-in for landmark status.
The 19-acre drive-in won't join the California Register of Historic Places because the owner has not consented as the law requires. But the commission's decision that it is eligible for the list means any new project and demolition face extra obstacles.
Sandmeier said that before any demolition, the property's owner will now need to conduct a study of the environmental effects, examine alternative uses and produce evidence to justify approval of the project by the City Council.
Sandmeier said the state decision gives the university a reason to sit down with preservationists to discuss how it could make use of the existing structures in a new project, much like the old Bullock's Wilshire was adapted to be part of the Southwestern Law School.
"This is a large site and the drive-in could be kept on a smaller scale as part of a wider project," she said.
Azusa Councilman Dick Stanford said it is the 44,000 residents of the foothills community 25 miles northeast of Los Angeles who will lose, thanks to the commission's decision.
Stanford said the Azusa City Council voted 4 to 1 in November to oppose the landmark designation, but the state board opted to listen to out-of-towners instead. The council, he said, opposed it because the venue is not economically viable and hardly resembles the drive-in of its glory days.
"There is no kids playground, car speakers or much of anything else," he said.
The councilman said he suspects that if the council goes through the environmental report process and approves a project at the location, the conservancy will use the historic designation to file suit.
Azusa Pacific President Jon Wallace said he does not know what to make of the decision, but he knows it will mean extra hurdles if the school opts to tear down the marquee, snack bar and metal screen. "We are not in the drive-in business, we're in business of education," he said.
The 40-year-old drive-in at 675 E. Foothill Blvd. is wedged between the university's new event center and its athletic fields and parking lots. The university has yet to submit a proposal for the site to the city.
Movies continue to be shown there seasonally under a deal with Pacific Theatres, from whom the university acquired the drive-in. Films were last shown over the Christmas holidays. It is also used for a swap meet.
Azusa Mayor Cristina Madrid said the state's decision gives her foothills community an opportunity to save its past and build a new identity and future around a Route 66 theme.
"This is a fabulous icon of a bygone era," she said. "This was the place to be with the A&W; Root Beer and an original McDonald's nearby."
Madrid complains that Stanford is a pawn for the conservative university, where he lectures part time and his wife is a faculty member, and that he was at least "morally conflicted" when he voted on the issue recently.
"This has nothing to do with preservation. She is anti-university and she'll do anything to slow them down," said Stanford. The mayor, he said, is out of step with those who want progress.