Riverside Will Seize Historic Fox Theater Building

Times Staff Writer

The Riverside City Council voted Tuesday to seize the Fox Theater, saying the current owner had failed to restore the historic vaudeville stage and cinema and turn it into a cutting-edge performing arts center.

The vote authorizes the city's redevelopment agency to use its power of eminent domain to force the sale of the theater to the city for $1.667 million, hundreds of thousands less than owner H.J. "Joe" Zivnak said would compensate him for what he invested in the theater.

"This is a difficult day -- one I had hoped could be avoided," said Councilman Dom Betro before the 7-0 vote.

"I believe Mr. Zivnak should be commended for the heart and soul and effort he has put into the Fox Theater. But I also believe the Fox is the second most historical building in the city, and one that the City Council must move on."

Zivnak said the city ignored the theater for decades and became interested only after he was approached by a major theater producer about putting on Broadway-style shows at the Fox. He also said the city reneged on its promise to help him financially with the theater's roof and seismic retrofit, and he vowed to challenge the city in court.

"There is no question -- I will fight them," he said before Tuesday's meeting. "I have done nothing wrong, and they have dealt [with me] in bad faith since the very early parts of this. I did everything in my power to work with them. And all that happened for my efforts was that I ended up losing a lot of money."

The Fox Theater opened in 1929 and screened the first public showing of "Gone With the Wind" a decade later. In recent decades, it has fallen into disrepair.

Zivnak bought the theater for nearly $1.4 million in March 2001 and said he spent $600,000 on renovations, including plumbing repairs, an upgraded sound system and organ installation, and refurbished office space.

Zivnak, 52, lives in Pomona and manufactures custom truck bodies. He said he bought the theater because of his memories of playing the pipe organ as a child at historic theaters.

"I basically purchased the theater to preserve it and install a pipe organ and preserve the way things were done back in the beginning -- sing-alongs, concerts of organ [music], silent movies," he said.

"Of course, we weren't limiting ourselves to that -- we were also attempting to restore the vaudeville stage and stage live performances."

Estimates of full refurbishment costs range from $7 million to $17 million, but such improvements could bring 10,000 people to downtown Riverside every week, greatly boosting the council's efforts to revitalize its downtown, Betro said.

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